FBI Database Is Anything but a Gold Standard for Employment Screening | Commentary

The National Association of Professional Background Screeners applauds Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., for their commitment to protecting vulnerable populations from predators through stringent background screening (“Keeping Our Kids Safe From Predators: A Challenge With a Bipartisan Solution,” Roll Call, Nov. 17). We take issue, however, with their editorial in which they characterize the FBI’s fingerprint database as the “gold standard” for use in employment or volunteer screening. In reality, the FBI database is far from perfect and should never be regarded as the most reliable source for comprehensive and accurate background screening.

Because of TV shows such as “CSI” and “Criminal Minds,” most people think the FBI fingerprint database is flawless and complete. There persists a common misconception that a universal national database, containing complete criminal information for every suspect in America, already exists and is readily accessible at the stroke of a key. These popular myths have helped confuse the ongoing debate among policymakers in Washington on the use of background checks. It is also a misconception that weakens the Child Protection Improvements Act sponsored by Rogers and Schiff.

The FBI database was designed to generate investigative leads based on fingerprint evidence — not to produce employment screening reports. In addition, the FBI repository is neither universal, nor considered reliable as a single source for background screening purposes. In a 2006 report, the FBI acknowledged its fingerprint-based repository is limited; it is missing disposition information in about 50 percent of its records. This low number exists because many counties don’t consistently report their records to state law enforcement and the manner by which states report information to the FBI varies as well.

The majority of the records in the FBI’s system are for minor infractions, and the FBI’s database does not contain up-to-date sex offender registry information. Importantly, the FBI report also acknowledges “users may not want to rely exclusively on an FBI and state repository check and may also want to check other record sources, such as commercial databases and local courthouses, to obtain more complete and up-to-date information.”

It is also important to keep in mind that single source searches performed on the FBI database by potential employers are exempt from protections under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which apply to professional background screeners and are designed to ensure the integrity of the information they report.

Because many of the records within the system are incomplete and lack disposition information for many infractions, a youth organization relying on the FBI database could run the risk of denying employment to someone based on inaccurate information or conversely, an individual with a disqualifying criminal history could be hired. This same risk does not occur with searches completed by professional background screeners who are required to adhere to the FCRA and go directly to the courthouse to ensure they have complete information.

The incomplete information that resides within the FBI fingerprint database should make any legislator question why legislation designed to protect vulnerable populations would place a premium on such a flawed system. The FBI database should not be placed on a pedestal or considered a “gold standard.” As professional background screeners, NAPBS members realize there is no single source that provides all of the information necessary for an accurate background screen. That is why our member companies utilize appropriate data sources, including primary sources such as courthouse records and secondary sources such as public and private databases to ensure a comprehensive picture of a prospective employee’s background is completed before presenting its findings.

Is there an added cost to screenings performed by professional consumer reporting agencies? Yes. But good public policy cannot weigh the cost of background screening against the safety of our children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations. To do so jeopardizes the safety and well-being of our future generations.

The NAPBS agrees with the CPIA objective to make the hiring and volunteer process more secure for families across the United States. We look forward to working with the next Congress to address the flaws in the mechanics of the proposal and craft a much stronger bill.

Melissa Sorenson is the executive director of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.