Citizens Academies and Background Checks

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

An earlier post of mine discussed citizens academies as an investment by local governments in various forms of community capital. In a conversation with a coordinator of one of these programs the question of background checks came up. Should applicants to citizens academies be subjected to some kind of background check before being allowed to participate? How many programs are currently doing such screens, and if so, why? I posed this question to program coordinators and the results are worth considering. And the implications extend beyond  citizens academies but also, potentially, to advisory boards and other official community volunteer capacities.

I posed this question recently to a list of public information officers in North Carolina (many of which serve as citizens academy coordinators) along with a list of program contacts for approximately 85 citizens academies from across the U.S. that I maintain (note, there is some overlap between the two lists).

I received 53 responses from a wide-variety of cities and counties, both large and small, from 14 different states (23 were from North Carolina). Of those 53 responses, 47 (or 89%) report that they do not perform background checks of program applicants or participants. Of the six that do, two reported that they do so because the program includes classes with the police department that involve ride-alongs and/or involve firearms, and thus they need to do background checks for safety reasons. Another respondent reported that they only perform background checks on participants if they choose (i.e., opt-in) to do a ride-along with police (thus they do not perform checks on all applicants). Another reported that they perform the checks on applicants simply “for safety reasons.”

It is important to note that of the 47 that report not doing background checks, almost all of them said they had not considered doing so, and of the couple that said they had considered it, cost, time, and possible discouragement of potential participants to apply were cited as reasons for deciding against it.

It is also noteworthy that many respondents noted that while they do not perform checks for their citizens academies, their citizens police academies do perform background checks. I think it is a safe bet to assume, based on this simple survey, that the vast majority of citizens academies do not conduct background checks of applicants while the vast majority of citizens police academies do perform background checks.

Several respondents questioned why one would ever consider doing a background check on applicants. Some said it would likely discourage people from attending, which goes against a value to encourage as many people to participate as possible. One even noted that a program participant had recently been released from jail and offered a unique perspective to the group. Another respondent asked what the goal for conducting background checks would be? Would someone not be allowed to participation based on what is discovered? What would the criteria be?

On the other hand, to the extent that program content includes learning about public safety operations and tactics and/or includes ride-alongs (which put participants in close proximity to sensitive information) and/or contact with firearms, a background check of some kind may be necessary. Furthermore, as a public affairs officer from a large police department noted, in the post-9/11 world, even the up-close exposure participants in citizens academies get to other government operations like public works and fire could warrant some form of background check.

The key questions for practice therefore are, first, whether some form of background check is warranted. It is worth the conversation, particularly when program content involves public safety operations. If some kind of check is deemed necessary, the next question becomes whether it is part of the application process, or something that is done prior to opting-in to parts of a program (such as a police ride-along) that necessitate the check. And if a check is part of the application process, then it is important to decide what criteria are used for disqualifying someone for the program altogether versus (perhaps) only certain parts of the program. In such cases the application should be clear about what disqualifies someone for participation in the program.

These insights don’t just apply to citizens academies though. The same questions can be asked about candidates for positions on advisory boards in local governments and other community organizations. Should they be screened? If so, what will  be the basis for rejecting a potential candidate?



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