Op-Ed: Access to National Background Check System Needed

The most significant issue facing the security officer sector today is background check standardization. Our country has no national background check system to ensure all private security officer personnel can be quickly vetted and screened. Information about arrests and convictions are available in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), but those computerized records are only available to law enforcement except in select states such as Florida and Arizona. State-wide background checking information does not go far enough. We need a clearinghouse similar to the banking industry. The reality is that this system is broken, and it's time for a radical change.

Private security officers provide a primary line of defense for much of the country, securing countless lives and tens of thousands of important sites each and every day. As the largest American owned security officer services' firm, our company was called to testify by the United States House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. We were queried on our experience using the criminal history database of the FBI to help screen applicants as well as our views on the Attorney General's June 2006 Report on Criminal History Background Checks.

Today, when we seek to hire security personnel, we have to conduct state-wide or county-by-county and court-by-court criminal record checks. In our global world, where anyone can jump on a plane or drive five states away in a few hours, statewide information is of very limited value. Without timely access to the records of the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, no investigation of security personnel can be considered complete.

The Attorney General's Report concluded that a comprehensive and reliable criminal history background check cannot be accomplished without timely access to the records of the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I agree whole heartedly with that statement. Our experience has proved that to be true.

Without access to federal records, the only records available to an employer are those in the states and their political subdivisions, where the records are typically kept at the courthouse in each county. Since there is no practical way to check all the counties for every employee, employers usually request a record check in the counties in which the applicant says they have recently lived or worked. This leaves the employer blind to any criminal history records in states for which the applicant failed to disclose.

There are commercial databases that aggregate criminal history information from multiple states but these are not truly national because not all states, courts, or agencies make their records available. Moreover, these databases are only updated periodically and, thus, may lack current data. These commercial databases are not adequate substitutes for information contained in the FBI-maintained database.

Congress -- with the support of many individuals in the security industry -- acted in good faith to provide private security officer employers with access to that federal database in 2004. Unfortunately, in doing so, Congress required that the employers always go through the state identification bureaus in order to get that access. In other words, we must submit the employee information to the state bureau, which then forwards the request to the federal level. If the FBI record check is completed, the results come back to the state, which then notifies the employer.

Significant delays in getting responses to criminal history record requests are unfair to employers and applicants, and present potential security risks. To address this problem, private sector employers should be able to screen job applicants against the FBI's criminal history records, with the states serving as the employers' primary access point for criminal background checks only if they can meet the Attorney General standard. If a state cannot provide timely background check results that incorporate both state and FBI data, employers should be able to make direct requests to the FBI for criminal history records utilizing digitized fingerprints.

A national background screening protocol will elevate the security officer sector and revolutionize the industry. Our government needs to work with the private security sector and place a high priority on establishing a clearinghouse where we can electronically submit applicant fingerprints and review the background of applicants across the country, immediately uncovering criminal records and other liabilities that may exist. By implementing these recommendations for the private security industry -- specifically by insuring employers' timely access to FBI criminal records while preserving employee rights -- we will make our nation safer and ensure that the hard-working men and women in the physical security sector can benefit from the increased professionalism and standardization that is vital to our sector.

About the author: Bill Whitmore is President & CEO of AlliedBarton Security Services, www.alliedbarton.com, a leading provider of highly trained security personnel to many industries including commercial real estate, higher education, healthcare, residential communities, chemical/petrochemical, government, manufacturing and distribution, financial institutions, and shopping centers.