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Background Investigation Information for Police Officer Exam (page 3)

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Updated on Mar 16, 2011

How to Read and Answer Questions

Reading questions and instructions carefully is critical to successfully completing the personal history statement. Certain words should leap off the page at you. These are the words you should key in on:

  • all
  • every
  • any
  • each

If you see these words in a question, you are being asked to include all the information you know. For example, you may see the following set of instructions in your personal history statement:

List any and all pending criminal charges against you.

This doesn't mean to list only the charges facing you in Arizona, but not the ones from that incident in Nevada last week. This department wants to know about every single criminal charge that may be pending against you, no matter what city, county, parish, village, country, or planet may be handling the case(s). Do not try to dodge instructions like these for any reason. If your fear is that the information you list might make you look bad, you may have some explaining to do. And you may have perfectly good explanations. If you lie to try to make yourself look good, though, chances are you'll be disqualified in short order and no one will get the opportunity to consider your explanations.

Another question you may see is:
Have you ever been arrested or taken into police custody for any reason?

The key words here are ever and any. This department means at any time in your life. If you don't know what is meant by the word arrested, then call your recruiter or investigator and ask. When in doubt, list any situation you think has a ghost of a chance of falling into the category you are working on. The best advice, though, is to ask if you don't know.

Here's a request for information that includes several eye-catching words.

List all traffic citations you received in the past five (5) years, in this or any other state (moving and nonmoving), excluding parking tickets.

In this example, the department leaves little doubt that what you should do here is make a complete list of every kind of violation you've been issued a citation for, no matter where you got it and no matter what the traffic violation was for, within the past five years. They even let you know the one kind of citation they don't need to know about—parking tickets. If you aren't sure what a moving violation is or what a nonmoving violation is, call the department and have them explain. Keep in mind that if an officer issued you a citation on a single piece of paper, you may have been cited for more than one violation. Most citations have space for at least three violations, sometimes more. For example, say that last year you were pulled over for speeding. The officer discovered you had no insurance and your license plates were expired. She told you she was writing you three tickets for these violations, but handed you only one piece of paper. Did you get one ticket or three? You got three.

Once again, ask if you don't know. No one will make fun of you if you are unfamiliar with terminology such as moving violation.

Here are some sample questions taken from actual personal history statements:

List all traffic citations ever received, including the date, place, and full details of each incident.

Submit seven-year driving history from each state in which you have ever held a driver's license.

List all moving and nonmoving traffic citations, excluding parking tickets (e.g., speeding, running a red light, expired registration, no insurance), that you have received in the past five (5) years, starting with the most recent citation. List the month and year each was issued, the type of violation, and the issuing agency.

Personal References

Your personal references are the people who will be able to give the background investigator the best picture of you as a whole person. Some personal history statements ask you to list up to six people as references, and some ask for only three. You also may be given a specific time limit for how long you may have known these people before listing them. Your instructions may direct you to list only those individuals whom you've known for a minimum of two years, for example. Pay close attention to the instructions for this section, if there are any. Selecting the people for this section is not something you should take lightly for many reasons.

Earlier, you read that by making the investigator's job easier you make your investigation run smoother, you get brownie points, and your background is finished quickly. The personal references section is one area where you really want to make it easy. You'll want the investigator to talk to people who know you well, who can comment on your hobbies, interests, personality, and ability to interact with others. Try to choose friends who will be honest, open, and sincere. When an investigator calls a reference and figures out quickly that the person he or she is talking to barely has an idea of who you are, the red flags will come shooting up. The investigator will wonder why you listed someone who doesn't know you well. Are you trying to throw him or her off track? Are you afraid someone who knows you too well will let out information you don't want known? This is how an investigator will look at the situation. And, at the very least, you will get a phone call requesting another reference because the one you listed was unsatisfactory.

Most investigators expect that you will notify your personal references and tell them that they will be getting a phone call or a personal visit from the investigating agency.Get the right phone numbers, find out from your references what times they are most accessible, and especially find out if they have any objections to being contacted. You don't need a reluctant personal reference. He or she will probably do more harm than good.

Tell your references how important it is for them to be open and honest with the investigator. It's also wise to let them know that there are no right or wrong answers to most of these questions. Investigators do not want to have a conversation with someone who is terrified about saying the wrong thing. And that's what your personal references should expect to have with an investigator—a conversation, not an interrogation. Your goal here is to let the investigator see you as a person through the eyes of those who know you best.

Here are sample requests for references taken from actual personal history statements:

CHARACTER REFERENCES (do not include relatives, former employers, or persons living outside the United States or its Territories). List only character references who have definite knowledge of your qualifications and fitness for the position for which you are applying. Do not repeat names of job supervisors. List a minimum of three (3) character references. Give each person's name, the number of years known, street address, and phone number.

Provide three (3) references (not relatives, fellow employees, or school teachers) who are responsible adults of reputable standing in their communities, such as heads of households, property owners, business or professional men or women, who have known you well during the past five (5) years. List each one's name, home and business phone numbers, street address, and occupation.

Additionally, provide three (3) social acquaintances who have known you well during the past five (5) years. (These must be different people from the three references listed above.)

Additionally, provide contact information for three (3) of your neighbors.

Before You Turn It In

You've filled out the practice copy you made of the personal history statement, made all your mistakes on that copy, answered all the questions, and filled in all the appropriate blanks. Now you're ready to make the final copy.

Part of the impression you will make on those who make the hiring and firing decisions will come from how your application looks. Is your handwriting so sloppy that investigators pass your work around to see who can read it? Did you follow the instructions directing you to print? Were you too lazy to attach an additional sheet of paper, and instead you wrote up and down the sides of the page? Did you spell words correctly? Do your sentences make sense to the reader? (A good tip here is to read your answers aloud to yourself. If it doesn't make sense to your ear, then you need to work on what you wrote.)

Every time you contact the hiring agency, you make an impression. The written impression you make when you turn in your personal history statement is one that can follow you through the entire process and into the academy. In fact, it can have a bearing on whether or not you even make it into the academy because most departments have a method of scoring you on the document's appearance.

Here are some items you might find useful as you work on your application and prepare it for submission.

  • a dictionary
  • a grammar handbook
  • a good pen (or pencil—whatever the directions tell you to use)

Make sure that you check your work, check it again, and have someone you trust check it yet again before you make your final copy.

You now have the information you need to make the personal history statement a manageable task. This is not a document to take lightly, especially when you are now aware of the power this document has over your potential career as a police officer. Remember, it's important that you:

  • follow instructions and directions
  • be honest and open about your past and present
  • provide accurate information
  • choose excellent personal references
  • turn in presentable, error-free documentation
  • submit documents on time

A recruiting department can ask for nothing better than an applicant who takes this kind of care and interest in the application process.

Polygraph Exam

Departments that include a polygraph exam, often in conjunction with the background investigation, do so to encourage honesty. If your only experience with a polygraph is what you have seen in the media, you may be surprised at how one is conducted. You will be questioned by an experienced examiner who will begin by asking you a series of basic questions including your name and address. This is to set you at ease and to establish how you respond to factual questions. Questions will then move to areas where dishonesty could seriously affect your chances for employment, including questions about prior criminal history, drug use, thefts, vehicle accidents, or domestic violence incidents. As with your background questionnaire and interview, always answer truthfully to the best of your knowledge. If you are asked something about your youth, for instance, and you honestly do not remember, say so rather than try to make up something you think the polygraphist or the machine wants to hear.

Arrive Early

Show the board how much you want this job. They will check to see when you arrived for your board. An early arrival means you planned ahead for emergencies (flat tires, wrong turns, and so on), that you arrived in enough time to prepare yourself mentally for what you are about to do, and that you place a value on other people's time as well as your own.

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