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Bad Credit, Bad Applicant

Dr. Richard Weinblatt

Many folks applying for law enforcement jobs fret about such possible background issues as criminal history or driving record, but few consider the impact their credit report can have on them. Given the current national focus on economic and credit issues, the topic is particularly timely.

To start to understand how police background investigators, recruiters, police chiefs and sheriffs view an applicant’s credit, it is important to understand what it is and how a person’s action, or inaction, can affect the credit score. The three main credit-reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) use a number to help banks and other lenders to assess a borrower’s risk and, if a loan is approved, what interest rate to charge.

The number they used, called a FICO score (from the Fair Isaac Company) is derived from five categories – owed amounts, payment history, length of credit history, age of credit, and type of credit utilized (credit cards are looked at more than mortgages, for instance). Credit scores range from a low of 300 up the high 800s.

Police academy students have asked me if the ads for companies offering to clean up bad credit are above board. The true medicine for an ill credit report is time and consistency in paying owed amounts on time.

So why should an applicant worry about their credit history and FICO score? Because the administrators reviewing the application are concerned with that aspect of your life. As I mentioned in my previous PoliceLink.com article Getting Hired: It’s About the Patterns they look for patterns. Patterns of responsibility and patterns of irresponsibility. That sounds a lot like the way your FICO scored is figured.

Background investigators generally are not concerned if there is some reasonable debt in your life. They just want to be sure that you are consistently honoring your obligation towards that debt. The approach demonstrates the trait of responsibility that they believe will also become evident when you get hired as a law enforcer. The concept is along the lines of the old background investigator adage that goes something like this: “past behavior is a reliable indicator of future performance.”

While law enforcement agencies have long looked to credit as a part of the background packet, other employers are using the same tactic and even insurance companies have jumped on the bandwagon. All see it as an indicator of how someone has lived their life thus far and will continue to do so.

Law enforcement agencies also reason that someone with pressing financial issues may be tempted to solicit a bribe or swipe some cash during an open door residential alarm house search. The opportunities for ill-gotten gain are ever present in law enforcement. LE executives see someone with large financial pressures as not being able to resist the temptations as much as someone who has minimal economic concerns.

So, you ask, how can a bad credit score be fixed? Much like the drunk driver that thinks coffee will help them sober up, only time and good behavior can clean up the financial house. Consistently paying on time and eliminating particularly credit card debt is the path to take. Early steps such as using a secured, pre-paid credit card will help in the recovery from a bad credit score or worse, a bankruptcy.

On the other hand, not having credit cards or any loans outstanding can also give you a low credit score due to a lack of a pattern or credit history. Many young applicants to police agencies run into this issue as they still live with their parents and drive a car that is in their parents’ name. These youthful applicants need to get some form of easily obtained credit (such as a department store credit card) and demonstrate responsibility by dutifully paying the credit card company on time. That will help them build up their FICO credit score.

As the economy continues to squeeze local governmental revenue sources, law enforcement executives have gotten pickier with the applicants they choose to hire. What used to be a sellers market is now a buyers market that favors the agencies. More segments of our society are viewing law enforcement as a steady employer in uncertain times. Credit scores are another indicator that police departments and sheriff’s offices use to ensure that only the most qualified of applicants are culled from the pack.


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    blkdragon1212

    about 5 years ago

    248 Comments

    I think there are factors beyond credit score that might be considered, for instance, has the applicant been in a divorce. I have had two, and the average time for getting the financial house in order has been about 10 years. What about the applicant who is taking care of elderly parents? We should look at the reason for the situation, not just the results of the situation....

  • Tina_max50

    One2makearealchange

    about 5 years ago

    14 Comments

    It is really depressing.... I mean we all have bills.It is not fair. I am a good loyal whole hearted female, I just had it rough, it is tough financially however I would never take a bribe because Im the perfect canidate of the "Crime Control Theory" Deter from commiting a crime because the benefit does not out weigh the punishment, you see? Better luck next year, we just need to buckle down and go for our dreams.....let me find a tree that money growsw on jeez....

  • Img_0027_max50

    futurecop32

    about 5 years ago

    50 Comments

    I'm beginning to think I'm wasting my time going to school for a criminal justice degree.

  • Img_0027_max50

    futurecop32

    about 5 years ago

    50 Comments

    I agree with austinandie

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    Corleyone5179

    about 5 years ago

    4 Comments

    i totally agree with you Fanta... I'm 29 now.. when i was 18-20 I was just a young & dumb kid.. that didnt know the importance of credit.. that doesnt make me a bad person.. or a future criminal..

    I can understand if i was applying for a Financial firm or institution... how this credit thing would apply... or trying to become a teacher / professor with a pathetic GPA... Or a Pilot / Train engineer with a horrible driving record....

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    fantacmet

    about 5 years ago

    26 Comments

    It's been awhile since I've commented on anything. This is the ony and only thing that has kept me out of a department. Generally people with high fico scores are dissillusioned to reality, make assumptions, such as poor = criminal. Most with low fico scores, or for a non-pc term poor people, like myself have gotten a raw deal in so many area's. It's been made all but impossible to survive without requiring credit.
    I was told my student loans and financial aid would cover all of my college costs, yet 6 months into it the money was out. So 16 years old 18 thuosand in debt, and no way to finish my degree. Low credit score too.
    So I'm called irresponsible over that. Tell that to my wife and children, who have a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, and who are all HAPPY. Which is more then we can say for alot of monetarily well to do families.
    I'm told that I have a high liklihood of taking advantage of authority as a LEO, to obtain money. According to who? You? The investigator? Please do not judge me based upon what you would be tempted to do. I worked graveyard security once for 3 days for a concert/contest, guarding over 5 million bucks worth of equipment. I was in the worst financial shape of my life(which is why I took that job), and the opportunity to quietly rip off about 30 grand in stuff long before anyone knew it was gone was there. It would have been easy as pie too. No camera's nochecks no nothing. So according to that assessment, I ripped off as much as I could. Newsflash, not a single piece or equipment was touched. Why? IT DID NOT BELONG TO ME!
    It's the same thing as politicians saying that because you own a gun you might go gun someone down in the street over a petty squabble. Quit judging the mass based upon what you personally might do. The person who hears the word gun and automatically thinks death and murder, probably doesn't have the responsibility to own one. Opposite for those who think self defense, safety, and family welfare. Credit score means jack these days. The credit companies are some of the most unscrupulous tyrants out there, oftentimes worse then mobsters in organized crime.

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    Corleyone5179

    about 5 years ago

    4 Comments

    Great article! but this concept is total BS!.. there are a ton of crooked guys who totally pass the background! so whats the point?.. this just prevents GOOD guys/gals from serving and protecting their communities.

  • 034_max50

    russo123

    about 5 years ago

    32 Comments

    crap !!!! are you extending me credit or giving me a job

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    Anonymous

    about 5 years ago

    I can see a small sliver of validity to checking a potential new LE hire. If the report shows blantant disregard for loan or credit card payments, I still think the applicant show have a chance to explain to either the Chief or the Sheriff of the department. If the explainantion is reasonable and can be verified then I can't see why it should be held against a person who could turn out to be a stelar officer. If you think of young people coming from unstable or law-unabiding homes, their credit score might not be perfect or might not exist at all. If everything else checks out clean for this candidate, then I believe that they should also be given a chance to explain the circumstances and given an OK on any flags that have been raised.
    If I was on the force, I would rather have a junkie's son, who never applied for credit but was trying to turn his life around, and was determined to do his/her best as an LEO covering my back than someone who already made tons of money dealing (name your drug of choice) and had an exceptional credit rating.
    I would rather trust someone that I new had a bad family history but was trying to bring everything together, than someone that comes out clean on the firswt pass because he/she has loads of cashed stashed away from drug dealings. These answers are only guaged to the questions already asked. The situation that I mention may never happen, but if it does, I would not want to see a promising career shot down because of past history with the family.

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    Anonymous

    about 5 years ago

    My credit isn't the best right now for the fact my husband was laid off... I made a choice to keep a home, food and a car. If I didnt... Then I would be worst off. Im not a dead beat... when my family gets back on track, they will be the first to get their money. I work hard and only I can prove that... not some score on paper...

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    scotc130lm

    about 5 years ago

    366 Comments

    In the past 15 years I have been in law enforcement, the lack of officers nationwide has increased to over 50%. Certain actions should not penalize a person from entering law enforcement. Credit reports are unfair and even if you challenge the validity of one all it takes for the company to say it is still valid and it stays on your report. There needs to be some reform on how credit reports are handled especially in a dispute.

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    austinandie

    about 5 years ago

    352 Comments

    I don't believe that this should negate hire. It's akin to giving students the GRE in determining if they will succeed in graduate school (there is no correlation). I do, however, agree that there is a small propensity for "easy money" that is not ethical, but this can be ameliorated by a good pre-hiring examination and interview process and the probation period (as previously mentioned). I would hate to further penalize someone who may be a great cop, but have circumstances that puts them at risk. Let's not "kick them while they are already down". Perhaps if they are more at risk, give them a slightly longer probation period. But do it in a manner that is consistent across all race, ethnic types. This might involve a grading scale for length of probation.

    There is little research to support the notion that poor credit leads to the propensity to commit crime.

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    amartinez19

    about 5 years ago

    2 Comments

    Great article and great comments. I agree that judging a person completly from a credit report(a piece of paper is illogical). The person should be given an opportuniity to explain his or her situation. I have never understood the thought process that someone with bad credit is more likely to commit a crime such as lacerny, fraud, and embezzlement. I can attest from personal experience from when I worked in the financial industry was those who committed fraud were the majority of the time those with great income and perhaps stellar credit, but none the less I so see why it is that agencies use credit as a method of screening out applicant. It is unfortunate however that many qualified leaders may be filtered out otherwise.

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    Canival9885

    about 5 years ago

    380 Comments

    I had this same issue before I got on the job with my agency and almost cost me getting in. For all those aspiring to get on the job, clear up your credit or show your investigator your alteast trying to make an effort to clear it up (ie; settlements, debt consolidation, etc.).

  • Theresa_max50

    tdyle

    about 5 years ago

    18 Comments

    There are a lot of police departments that are so short on man power, that it is a shame someone is turned away because fo their credit! This is adding to our problem of officer safety! One of my main questions, "what is a probationary period for?"

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