In November, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 members of a small-town Texas church and wounded 20 others. Even if you’re good about checking applicant backgrounds, you might have hired him without hesitation.
While in the Air Force, Kelley had been convicted of domestic violence against his wife. You or any other employer who knew that probably would not have hired him. But nobody outside the Air Force and his estranged wife knew, because the Air Force chose not to share information about the conviction with the FBI or anyone else.
Had Kelley applied for a job with your company, and by law or policy you use the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) database, which is maintained by the FBI, his record would have come back clean. As a prospective employer, you would have no way of knowing that he had violently attacked his wife. Nor would you have been aware of his history of animal abuse or his mental health issues, details of which quickly emerged after his apparent suicide. So you wouldn’t have been blamed for having assumed that he was a safe hire.
His conviction should also have kept Kelley from being able to buy firearms, but again, it wasn’t there, so he was able to purchase the four guns he carried into the church.
Don’t blame the FBI. They had no way of knowing that he was a risk. But the incident, and many others like it over the years, point to inherent danger of limiting searches to single-source databases like the NCIC. The FBI counts on local, county, and state police to furnish the crime data that goes into the NCIC. Most law enforcement departments send the information, but some don’t — or they only send information about certain types of crimes. That means the NCIC is not as comprehensive as most people believe.
What’s the lesson for employers? If you’re using a background search process that only checks a single-source database like the NCIC (or the Limited Criminal History check offered through the Indiana State Police), you may unwittingly be hiring people who have committed crimes. It’s not that the databases or the agencies that operate them are doing a bad job — it’s that they don’t have access to all the information they need to provide a comprehensive search.
When police detectives investigate crimes, they often question witnesses. But they don’t simply take what those witnesses say at face value. Part of building a criminal case is digging deeper and working to confirm that the accounts given by those witnesses are accurate. A good detective will look at a case from as many angles as possible to be completely sure that the right person is brought to justice.
An effective background-screening process is similar. It may begin with a check of a database such as the NCIC, but that’s only the starting point. Private background-screening companies will dig deeper to learn as much as they can about an applicant. For example, our firm will check the records in jurisdictions where the applicant previously lived and worked to see if there has been any criminal activity that might not have been reported to the FBI or State Police.
Another important consideration is that databases can only identify exact matches. If your candidate’s first name is spelled Bryan, but an arresting office mistakenly typed it as Brian, it may not come up in a database search. A thorough background-screening provider will also check similar names and likely misspellings, because human data input is rarely perfect.
As with a criminal case, the more thorough the investigation into a candidate’s background, the less likely he or she will be able to hide past activities that would disqualify them from working for your company. That’s why it pays to use a process that includes huge databases like the NCIC, but also involves in-depth checks that address potential gaps in those databases. It’s why your car has antilock brakes, seat belts, and air bags. Any one of them can protect you from injury on its own, but the three working together dramatically reduce the risk.
If you’re using a background-screening provider, make sure you know what they are checking. Your provider may offer you a bargain price, but if they’re simply running names against a database like the NCIC, you could wind up with people like Devin Patrick Kelley on your payroll — and that’s something no employer can afford.
Mike McCarty is CEO of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions.