Pittsburgh Area Needs an Overhaul in Background Checks for Police Academy Trainees

By Michael Klazema on 9/2/2014

In Allegheny County, the Pennsylvania area that houses Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs, the police training program takes an unorthodox angle with its trainees. In most areas, applicants will go through training at the academy and then be employed by a police department. In Allegheny County, though, trainees have no guarantee of employment and aren't even technically applying for jobs. Since a job application is not part of the training process, the Police Academy is not allowed to use the same background check standards as most other similar training programs would.

The limited scope of the background checks at the Allegheny County Police Academy has created problems for local police over the years. Issues with the background check oversights date back more than a decade, to when an academy graduate went to apply for a job outside of the police force and had his criminal record discovered. That incident didn't force a change in how the academy screens its trainees though, and it remains to be see whether or not a more recent situation will lead to some policy changes.

Currently, the big story of the Allegheny County Police Academy surrounds a local 21-year-old male who was accepted into the training program after passing a criminal background check. His record looked clean until he went to apply for a firearm license, at which point a second background check uncovered a juvenile criminal record in Williams' past: possession of a firearm by a minor.

Stipulations on his record directly prohibited him from carrying a gun. Had the Police Academy known about Williams' criminal past, there is no chance that they would have ever accepted him into the program. Police officers and trainees, of course, have to be allowed to carry a gun.

Part of the issue here is that he lied on his application to the Police Academy. One of the questions on the training academy application form specifically asks whether or not the prospective trainee has ever committed a crime that would prohibit them from using or carrying a gun. That question is one that could be classified as a make-or-break query, as a "yes" answer would automatically disqualify an applicant from training to become a police officer. However, since this subject answered "no," his application was approved.

A bigger problem, though, is that the background checks at the Allegheny County Police Academy are simply not up to snuff. An article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted a state trooper who said that the checks used by the academy are "limited" and that most similar background checks would pull information from a wider array of databases in order to screen applicants. Precisely which databases the academy does pull information from, though, is unclear.

Now, though, Police Academy officials are considering a few alterations to background check policy just to formulate a more secure funnel for potential trainees. By not including a formal job application as part of its screening process, the academy is somewhat shackled as to what it can and cannot do for background checks. However, officials are looking into whether or not they could require all applicants to apply for a gun license, since such licenses require background checks of their own that are more thorough.

In order to use firearms during training, police cadets don't actually have to have gun licenses. This person applied for one on his own accord, which proved to be fortunate because the background check discovered his juvenile offense before the academy reached any gun training segments. However, in most cases, such applications are not submitted before the end of academy training.


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