A background check is a review of official records pertaining to an individual. The purpose of the check is to determine whether that individual has engaged in prior behaviour which would render him or her unsuitable for some activity or benefit.

Types of background check may include identity checks, police checks, credit checks, reference checks, and so on. In this writeup I will be focussing on the police background check (with some specifics that apply to Canada).

Police checks

A police check, unsurprisingly, is a review of police databases and records. Various federal, state, provincial, and municipal police forces cooperate and share information.

Individuals wishing to take employment, volunteer for a beneficent organization, rent an apartment, adopt a child, engage in certain licensed professions, or take certain education courses may be required to pass a background check as a condition of acceptance. Such a check usually forms part of a comprehensive gating process which includes interviews and employer reference checks.

Contents of a police background check

In addition to any criminal records, other information from past police contact such as inquiries, past complaints by or about an individual, and mental disorders of record may be returned. Even charges that led to an acquittal or stay may be reported.

Background checks and employment

Employers are typically forbidden to discriminate against candidates based on sex, age, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, and so on. While they may discriminate based on the background check (this being the purpose) they may not normally do so on the basis of record of a criminal offense that was officially pardoned, nor may they do so on the basis of minor regional offenses such as traffic violations. Certain exceptions apply, for example in situations where the applicant will be working closely with vulnerable individuals, such as children or the elderly.

Obtaining a police background check

In Ontario, Canada, in order to obtain a national police check, you are required to submit fingerprints and a photograph. One can expect that in the relatively near future DNA samples will be taken as well.

You can't simply stroll into an RCMP office and ask for this — several private firms (usually staffed by former police officers) are licensed as intermediaries. The fee for this service is CDN $60 at time of writing.

Local police checks can be requested directly from the local municipal police force. The fee for this service varies by municipality. Locally to me, the fee for municipal police records release is CDN $15 at time of writing.

In many cases the results of a police background check will be sent directly to a requesting organization or employer. In such cases you will need to sign a consent form. It is recommended that you be sure to read and understand this consent form to be sure that it limits the scope of the request to what is absolutely necessary. You may be able to amend the agreement if it seems to be to broad in scope. You will most likely also want to obtain a copy of the report for yourself. A prospective employer must share the report with you if you so request.

If possible, it is best to directly obtain the police report yourself, so that you may review it and be sure that no inaccuracies are present. Mistakes do, after all, can happen.

Types of police background checks

In Ontario, Canada, there are two police background checks for prospective adoptive families (that being my source of familiarity with this process).

One type is a national police check. The applicant's fingerprints and photo are submitted to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Interpol, and reports are sent back directly to the applicant. Reports are usually returned in 6 to 8 weeks (mine took 8). I received two reports from the RCMP's Canadian Criminal Real Time Identification Services, collectively referred to as a 'Civil Product'. The first, on RCMP letterhead, features my name, date of birth, gender, address, a dreadfully unflattering photo, and my fingerprints. The second, on Interpol letterhead, includes only my name and date of birth, but indicates that fingerprint submissions were used. In my case, both reports indicate that could not be associated with any criminal records. Whew!

The second background check is a local police check, for which a form can be submitted directly to the local municipal police force. This report is typically sent to the requesting organization. A report is usually returned in 8 to 10 weeks. As of this writing, I have not seen my results from this check.

Privacy concerns

The RCMP report states that the fingerprint form originally submitted to process my application has been destroyed. Whether the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has kept a copy is left open to one's imagination!

Sources include a helpful PDF from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, http://www.ipc.on.ca/images/Resources/up-1policebkg.pdf , plus the fact that I have my own RCMP report right here in front of me.

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