“A Killer’s Lie Missed” Two days prior to this Columbus Dispatch headline a supervisor in the maintenance division of Ohio State University was shot and killed, another supervisor wounded. The suspect, a disgruntled ex-employee recently terminated from his job, then took his own life.

The headline “A Killer’s Lie Missed” is referring to the fact that a background check on the gunman, Nathaniel Brown, missed a vital piece of information that may have prevented Nathaniel from being employed by the school. Nathaniel had filled out an application form which asked if he had ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. To which he responded, “NO”. According to OSU staff, this intentionally falsified information would have disqualified Nathaniel from employment with the university.
So how did a background check, provided by a seemingly respectable background screening company, miss the fact that Nathaniel served five years in an Ohio State prison for receiving stolen goods? The answer may not be all that simple.

A common misconception (bolstered by television crime dramas such as C.S.I., Criminal Minds), would have us believe that locating a person’s criminal history is a simple matter of typing a name or social security number into a master criminal record database which compiles in instant rap sheet on the individual, including details of every offense ever committed, alias names, and a recent picture from their driver’s license.

What many do not realize is…A) The “TV Cops” are utilizing a (fictional yet glamorous) version of NCIC which is the National Criminal Information Center database, operated by the FBI. B) NCIC is a not without its own problems, such as getting data uploaded in a timely manner from the thousands of local jurisdictions around the country. C) NCIC is not permissible for employers or screening agencies to access. In fact, it’s a federal offense in most cases.

While we do have our own arsenal of criminal record databases in the private sector, often referred to as “Nationwide Criminal Databases”, these multijurisdictional databases are even further from perfect. Various local jurisdictions contribute little or no information to them. Therefore, many gaps exist in their coverage. They are a very useful tool for employment screening but best utilized in conjunction with local county criminal searches based on the applicant’s residential history in order to fill the gaps and obtain the most up to date information.

Understanding that true criminal record research cannot always produce instant results is an important fact to understand when shopping for a service provider. Screening companies have to know where and how to retrieve information as each jurisdiction can have different protocols. For example, County “A” may have criminal record information available through 1960 with a “soundex” search which will pull up similar name variations to the original search. By contrast, County “B” may restrict their misdemeanor and felony searches to only 7 years and require an exact name and full date of birth. One digit or letter off from the existing record and the file will be missed completely. Quality research companies understand and compensate with smart procedures.

Another variable that contributes to the effectiveness of a background check is the agreed upon search criteria which determines the extent of the background check. In an ideal situation, we could always search the county level and federal level courts of every jurisdiction an applicant ever resided or worked in. Then throw in a nationwide criminal record database for good measure. Most corporations cannot afford a search this extensive so it becomes a balancing act of due diligence and cost effectiveness. In the case of Nathaniel Brown, we don’t know yet what the background investigation entailed. The crime that resulted in a 5 year prison sentence occurred prior to 1979 so a basic county or residence search could have easily missed the record. We do know that a nationwide criminal record database search was used in Nathaniel’s background check. It’s reasonable to assume that the database used did not include records from the county in question from 1979.

So, what’s the key to not missing important criminal record information? One of the most important things an employer or HR representative can do is get a breakdown of what exactly your screening company is providing you and then ask for more details on what those searches mean. A few good questions to ask your screening provider are…
1) Do your researchers report criminal records beyond 7 years if the jurisdiction allows searches to extend further?
2) Do you report arrests when they are FCRA compliant (within 7 years in most states) or only convictions?
3) Do you report misdemeanors that are not associated with felony charges?
4) Can you provide me a document that details your nationwide criminal record search’s data sources and update frequency?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help you evaluate the thoroughness of your background screening procedures, accurately compare costs between service providers and avoid surprises in the future.

Please note: SafeScreener.com, Background Screening Made Simple Blog, and Background Screening Consultants LLC, do not provide legal advice. Postings, articles, press releases and other distributed or verbalized information should be considered as guidelines and suggestions based upon professional experience, research and industry best practices. Questions or decisions regarding employer’s legal rights or applicants legal rights should be directed towards legal representation.