By Thomas Ahearn, ESR Staff Writer

According to popular TV crime dramas, today’s investigators, along with old fashioned gut instincts,  use all technology at their disposal when it comes to tracking down and arresting the bad guys. One such technological advantage is a centrally located national computer database containing all past criminal records of anyone who ever killed, stole, drove drunk, or even jaywalked. Best of all, these super crime databases are never, ever wrong.

However, the reality is quite different say experts in employment screening, and also recent headlines. The potential for errors in crime databases was evident in the case of a Maryland woman who lost her job after a background check performed through the FBI National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) indicated that she was unsuitable to work on the contract her company had won to handle mail for the Social Security Administration (SSA).

According to the Baltimore Sun, when the SSA performed a routine background check on the woman in July 2009 for low-level security clearance, the results showed she was “unsuitable” to work on the contract. The subsequent SSA letter to her employer did not specify what the background check had uncovered. The employer fired the woman rather than keep her off the contract.

The woman maintained that she had no criminal history, a claim backed by the Baltimore Sun, which only uncovered a civil case possibly involving a suit against her late father’s estate, and also by the SSA itself, which sent a letter to her employer saying as much. The SSA letter said the woman had passed a pre-screening check and could work on the SSA contract pending a final determination. Instead of reinstating her, the woman’s former company told her to re-apply for her job, then that the department was reorganizing, and later that it had no intention of restoring her old position.

The Baltimore Sun reported that the woman has since learned that an unspecified error in the FBI NCIC database,  a repository for criminal records and information on fugitives, stolen property and missing persons fed to the database from local, state. and federal law-enforcement agencies around the country, was the cause for the SSA’s initial determination that she was unsuitabol.

“lthough the NCIC data is the closet thing that exists to a national criminal database, it is not nearly as complete as portrayed in the movies,” ated Les Rosen, Founder and President of Employment Screening Resources (ESR), a nationwide pre-employment screening company. “Many records of crime do not make it into the system because of the chain of events that must happen in multiple jurisdictions in order for a crime to appear in NCIC.”

According to Rosen, author of The Safe Hiring Manual: How To Keep Criminals, Terrorists, and Imposters Out of Your Workplace, employers cannot even access the NCIC unless they are specifically authorized to by law.  There are over 10,000 state and federal courthouses in the United States spread out over some 3,300 jurisdictions, each with its own records file.

“Contrary to popular belief, there is actually no central location for all U.S. criminal records,” says Rosen. “There is simply no national computer database of all criminal records available to private employers.”

A 2005 report sponsored by  the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), of which Rosen is a past co-chair, reviewed the National Crime Information Center and the Interstate Identification System in order to evaluate its effectiveness in maintaining accurate and complete criminal history records.

Some conclusions from the NAPBS sponsored study were:

  • Many states do not report information concerning dispositions, declinations to prosecute, failure to charge after fingerprints have been submitted, and expungements.
  • Inconsistency in the various state’s reporting requirements and criminal codes impacts the completeness and accuracy of the records.
  • The timeliness of transmission by the local jurisdictions to the state criminal history repositories remains problematic.
  • There are still significant time lags between the time information is transmitted to the state repository and entry into the criminal history records.
  • The process used to linking data to the proper individual and case is still ineffective.
  • Serious problems remain in the process to link dispositional information to the proper case and charge.
  • The format and terminology used by the various states creates problems of interpretation for individuals in other states who are using the information.
  • Even when a criminal record is searched based fingerprints instead of name matches, many of the same issues still exist.

 As the case of the Maryland woman fired from her job  due to an “unspecified error” in the NCIC shows, the FBI database, while still the gold standard for those limited employers authorized by state or federal law to access it, is still more of an arrest databases that is not as accurate or complete as people think.

Sources: (Contains letter to the Department of Justice by Employment Screening Resources  on FBI records as well as report sponosred by NAPBS) (DOJ report on FBI criminal records database and criminal background checks)