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Demystifying the Background Investigation Process: What You Can Expect When Applying for a Law Enforcement Job

By Dr. Chuck Russo, Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University

For five years, I served as the background investigator at a county sheriff’s department. After that, I was hired by a municipal police department and was immediately assigned as their background investigator for the next three years before finally escaping the office to return to road patrol.

Frequently, job seekers would ask me the same questions time and again and it became apparent to me that no one had really taken the time to explain the background investigation process to individuals applying for jobs in law enforcement and corrections. While each department may conduct the background investigation a bit differently, there are many commonalities that apply to all criminal justice agencies.

Step 1: The Application Process

First you must decide to submit an application for a sworn position with an agency. If your application is incomplete, you may receive a letter saying so, along with another application packet to complete. However, in some agencies, the application is logged as incomplete and you will never hear from that agency again.

If the application is complete when it comes into the office, it is frequently logged into a background investigation spreadsheet and the background investigator starts a folder for your application.

Step 2: Background Investigator Initial Screening Process

The background investigator now gets to work. He or she will begin by first pulling all your records. If the agency is only hiring personnel who have already enrolled in or completed the law enforcement academy for part-time/full-time positions and for those without the academy civilian officer positions (traffic control specialists), the background investigator will go into the state’s law enforcement/corrections record management system (e.g. Florida’s Automated Training Management System, ATMS). Investigators will use these databases to check your agency employment history and your state certification.

These records show the background investigator all the agencies you have worked for in the state, if any, and the reason for separation (voluntary separation, terminated, under investigation). If your record shows “terminated” or “under investigation” the background investigator will often contact the agency to determine the cause of separation.

If you are a male, the background investigator will check to see if you have registered for the Selective Service. The background investigator will then run your name through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) as well as the state database (e.g. FCIC in Florida) to see if you have any criminal history.

The investigator will also pull your driver license history to see what violations you have collected. If you have a staple in your driver license history—meaning there’s more than one page—that is not good as it often indicates a DUI, suspension, or insurance problems.

The background investigator may also pull a background information report on you that includes everything from property ownership to relatives to places you lived when you were a kid, and compare this information to your application.

If you were prior military, the investigator will send for your records. At this point, if you are not certified as an officer or were terminated for cause or about to be terminated for cause, if you are not registered for Selective Service and should be, if you have a criminal history, have issues with your driver license history, or your report does not match with your application, generally the background investigator will stop processing your application and issue you a “thanks, but no thanks” letter.

Step 3: In-Person Interviews with Department Officers

If you pass the previous phase, you will move on if the agency has an opening. The background investigator may start this phase with an oral interview. Typically the background investigator does not participate in the oral interview, but may escort you into the interview and remain in the room during the interview.

You will be asked a series of questions and the agency will gauge your responses. “The agency” may consist of a line employee (officer/deputy), a supervisor (corporal/sergeant), a manager (lieutenant/captain), or some variation of these ranks/individuals. Those in the interview will issue a score and a “yes” or “no” response.

A “no” means you get a “thanks, but no thanks letter.” A score and “yes” means the background investigator has more work to do and thus he or she begins the next phase of the investigation process.

Step 4: Checking Your References

The background investigator will start the process by contacting your references, checking your places of employment, and contacting your neighbors. Their goal at this phase is to confirm the information you have self-reported and find out more about you.

He/she will contact the law enforcement agencies where you live/have lived and ask them to check their records for any contacts with you. The background investigator will contact all agencies you have worked for either by phone or in person and pull your employment jacket.

This stage requires a lot of work and takes time to complete. The background investigator plays a lot of phone tag with people—leaving messages back and forth—

and does a bit of driving in some cases. During this phase, the background investigator may also drop by and see you without warning to verify how you live.

He/she may also contact academy instructors and even your former professors. If he/she discovers any differences between your application and reality—such as poor employment history—or if the investigator is unable to contact any of your references, then he/she will likely send you a “thanks, but no thanks” letter. Sometimes he/she may “know” something isn’t right, but has not been able to turn up any evidence. When this occurs, he/she will dig deeper and deeper until what is giving him/her that uneasy feeling is discovered or discounted.

Step 5: Medical, Polygraph and Psychological Exams

If you have made it this far, consider yourself in really good shape as the vast majority of applicants do not get to this phase. Now begins the next phase of the process: your medical screening, drug screening, polygraph and psychological exam.

Your psychological exam may be a paper and pencil 150+ question test and an interpretation session with a doctor, which will generate a report to the agency. The information in the report may vary from a matrix that ranks you in one of three categories (low risk, medium risk, and high risk) to a paragraph that states the individual is deemed “fit” or “unfit” for the duties and responsibilities of the position.

Agencies want low risk, they don’t want high risk, and they will often take a good look at medium risk scores. High-risk individuals have a probability of finding themselves on the front page of the newspaper and not for good reasons. Medium-risk individuals may get on that front page, while low-risk individuals have a probability of being on the front page, but for the good reasons.

The medical and drug screen are pretty cut and dry–no drugs in your system and you will not drop dead tomorrow. The question to be answered is: “Are you able to physically perform the tasks associated with being a sworn officer?”

The polygraph consists of an extensive interview followed by the attachment of sensors to the body. The interviewer asks a series of questions and observes the results on the polygraph. If no deception is reported and no new information emerges from this process, you are good to be hired for a position. If the agency has more successful applicants than openings, they then make a decision on who to hire full-time and who may receive offers for reserve/part-time positions.


Going through the application process for a law enforcement position is a rigorous and time-consuming process. While each agency does things a bit differently, the process is generally the same. Every time a background investigator picks up or handles your application, you run the risk of getting a “thanks, but no thanks” letter. It is very easy to get one of those letters–much easier than it is to successfully make it through the process.

About the Author:  Dr. Chuck Russo has been involved with American Military University since 2001. He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East.

Dr. Russo earned his Master of Arts degree in education in 1995 and Master of Science degree in criminal justice in 1996 from the University of Central Florida. He earned his doctoral degree in public affairs at the University of Central Florida in 2006. His research focuses on emerging technology and law enforcement applications. 

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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