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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 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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