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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.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 6 years ago


    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.

  • Images_max50


    over 6 years ago


    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


    over 6 years ago


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

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 6 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.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 6 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...

  • Dcp01604_max50


    over 6 years ago


    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.

  • Dsc00182_max50


    over 6 years ago


    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.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 6 years ago


    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.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 6 years ago


    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


    over 6 years ago


    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?"

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 6 years ago


    I must agree with Hanna. If there is an ounce of larceny in anyone, it does not matter what the financial pressure is, they are going to steal.

    Looking at the totality of the circumstances and give an applicant the opportunity to explain the situation can be much more reflective of the character of the applicant. What about the applicant that let some credit card get charged off because there were more important issues such as Hanna pointed out "keeping a roof over our head and food in our bellies". If financial pressure dictated, they would have done something illegal to keep the credit account from charging off. Although not a pleasant thing to do, it is much more honorable of character to take care of your family and let something go bad on your credit report than to resort to illegal means to keep it clean.

    As sandmike pointed out, the credit score is only the beginning, where you go from there is an administrative choice. As the author pointed out, most departements look at the credit score as an indicator. It is a sad thing that this is the case and they don't look at the totality of the circumstances. Those that have been victims of divorce, injury, or other cicumstances beyond our control can be discriminated against because of this. It does not make them a bad officer.

    Some agencies don't want to spend the time and manpower to work through the details because it is a "buyers market" as the article states. This type of indifference causes persons to be passed over that would become good outstanding officers. All I can say to those in this situation is keep trying for you will find someone that will look at the total picture.

    As for the article, it was clearly directed at those trying to break in to law enforcement for the first time and the advice was right on point for that purpose. The issues that it raised would be good fodder for a follow up article on the subject.

  • 2004feb004_max50


    over 6 years ago


    A credit score on a background investigation is just ONE facet of the investigation. Someone with a justifiable circumstance beyond their control is not going to be bounced just for a bad score in most agencies, if it can be explained. On the other hand, someone with poor financial discipline and organization is someone most agencies try to screen out.

  • Weinblattmsnbc_max50


    over 6 years ago


    CFHanna: I see all of your points. Please understand that my article does not reflect completely my views on the best persons to hire. I have long believed that you have to look at the whole person and judge each of them in the context of what has happened to them. That being said, the article is not about who you or I would hire; it is about who most administrators would hire. Right or wrong, whether we agree or disagree with each individual hiring decision they make, does not matter. This article was designed to reflect the reality that applicants would confront at most hiring law enforcement agencies especially in today's curtailed economically induced curtailed hiring environment. Further, it was designed to help them to understand how credit is determined and how to change their credit score. I hope this helps to clarify the intent of the article and my stand on the issue.
    --Dr. Richard Weinblatt

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 6 years ago


    3rdwatchguy, I have a better example for you. I am looking to get back into law enforcement. Pryor to my applications, I was working as a Project Manger for a commercial construction company. I always had stellar reviews and paid all of my accounts and bills on time. During a job I was involved in a near fatal accident that left me in rehab for a year. Due to the extent of the injury, I was no longer able to continue that particular line of work. Thru the rehab center in our state, I had the opportunity to be retrained in computer programming, which was an additional year. Now during those two years I was in a battle with the agency that handled our workman's comp claims, eventually I had to get an attorney to settle the dispute. During those two years I recieved no pay, I eventually went thru our life savings just trying to keep a roof over our head and food in our belies. A long story short, I ended up with my credit going bad. I have fought back through one situation after the next to recondition myself and get back to doing what I loved. Law enforcement. So what the article is saying is despite the fact that I show an outstanding work record, Have beneficial training that could be put to excellent use, because of a situation that was beyond my control and my credit is shot, a department is going to base their hiring off of a credit report and not the individual? Just because a person pays a bill on time does NOT make him or her "the most qualified" person to be hired. "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." This statement, pulled from the writers article, is to me narrow minded and linear in his thinking. A person who is going to steal is going to steal regardless of credit. Whether you steal or don't is based on ones integrity and ethics, not on a FICO score.

  • Me_2_max50


    over 6 years ago


    Good article, but how many otherwise stellar fellow LEO's looking to find a better agency and who have had a messy divorce will find themselves untouchable. Again the article does say that patterns are looked at. Often some employers are unwilling to look beyond the sudden credit difficulties to understand that prior to the divorce or similiar issue the officer's or applicant's credit showed steady and responsible behavior. Just a thought.

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