Thomas C. Frazier: Background checks — ensuring safety in the digital age

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Many recent conversations around the sharing economy have spurred discussion on the capabilities and adequacy of various methods of background safety screenings.  Some law enforcement professionals assume the best method is any method that involves a fingerprint-based criminal history search.

During my many years in law enforcement, I also had assumed this method was best because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” but after hearing the debate across the country on fingerprint-based background checks versus electronic background checks, I determined it was best to do my own research.

My examination has made it clear that false information abounds regarding both methods. After spending weeks sorting through all the available information, I can affirmatively attest to the fact that today’s electronic background checks are extensive, robust and a standard for safety.

There are two components to an effective background screening process. One is establishing identity: “Is the person who they say they are?” And second is a review of criminal convictions: “Can this person be trusted to do this job without compromising public safety?”

So what comprises these background checks? And how can you be sure they’re identifying important safety flags?

First, you need to verify a person is who they claim to be. Some think fingerprints or other biometric measures should be the sole means to determine identity. In truth, this is hardly a best practice and can provide a false sense of security. There are other effective means to establish identity. One way to verify is to request multiple pieces of information issued by distinct organizations. While it may be feasible to forge a single identity document, it is much more difficult to forge multiple documents that can be cross-checked and verified electronically. This verification system is similar to “identity proofing” used by organizations like the Internal Revenue Service and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

A thorough electronic background check searches over 10,000 independent data sources. This extraordinary collection contains over 34 billion records in two petabytes of information. A petabyte is a measure of computer memory indicated by a number with 15 trailing zeros, i.e., 2,000,000,000,000,000.  By comparison, the entire Netflix streaming collection of videos is only about one petabyte.

That’s why this verification method is so widely used in finance and health care to screen applicants for highly sensitive positions. It’s also important to note these checks are done using federal and state regulated and accredited services.

The second issue comes from the common belief, even in law enforcement, is that the FBI retains all existing criminal history records in a large central repository. That is simply not true. Much of this data actually exists in state and local databases. And where fingerprint-based background checks are a required standard, the lack of accurate and up-to-date conviction information in the FBI database prevents fair hiring decisions.

Two recent independent investigations in Ohio revealed over 10,000 persons were in sensitive and respected positions even though they had disqualifying criminal convictions.  These convictions weren’t revealed through a fingerprint-based background check. These persons included schoolteachers, home health care providers, and others cleared by a system that reports have described as “broken.”

From someone who’s spent a lifetime in law enforcement, I can tell you fingerprint-based background checks do not guarantee safety. Far from a guarantee of safety, fingerprints are unnecessary and do not add value to the background check process. But don’t take my word for it. A recent report on fingerprinting and criminal checks by a National Academy of Sciences research panel found “we weren’t able to find a body of evidence indicating whether fingerprinting added to safety one way or another.”

After researching and reviewing all the relevant factors, the evidence leaves me with the clear conclusion that a modern electronic background check is as thorough and effective as any check based on fingerprints. Hiring decisions should be made using the most complete and current information available, which is what the professionals behind the modern electronic background checks use.


Thomas C. Frazier is a nationally recognized police expert, with more than 45 years of law enforcement experience that includes service as Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, Director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in the U.S. Department of Justice, and Executive Director of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association. He is CEO of Frazier Group, a private consulting firm specializing in organizational assessment, best practices, and civil rights compliance.

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