Catching a good guy: Importance of background checks in hiring Youngstown officers

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WKBN was allowed to have a look at the process of hiring new police officers, which entails extensive background checks

Lt. Brian Butler of the Youngstown Police Department leaves a business card in the mailbox of a Hubbard apartment building, where he was conducting a background check on a potential officer who applied to work for the department.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – As an investigator, Lt. Brian Butler of the Youngstown Police Department is up on the latest investigative techniques and tools.

He has access to lie detectors to test for stress and medical, psychological and personality tests. He supplements them with shoe-leather police work, visiting police departments, looking up reports, interviewing teachers, ex-spouses or partners and even other police officers.

But he is not after a criminal. He is trying to determine who has the makeup to catch them.

Butler is the department’s Staff Inspector and heads up its Internal Affairs Division. He spearheads the process of testing and checking into the background of officers who make the cut after the department’s Civil Service exams, which are given for entry-level police officers.

WKBN was allowed to have a look at the process as Butler delved into the background of a candidate who is a part-time officer for the Hubbard Police Department.

The department this fall is expected to add anywhere from 12 to 15 officers. They are among those who took the entry-level exam in July for police officers. About 90 candidates took the test and 66 passed.

Lt. Brian Butler of the Youngstown Police Department sifts through reports at the Hubbard Police Department written by a candidate who works for Hubbard who applied to work in Youngstown. Butler wanted to see what kinds of reports the officer generates as well as how they are written.
Lt. Brian Butler of the Youngstown Police Department sifts through reports at the Hubbard Police Department written by a candidate who works for Hubbard who applied to work in Youngstown. Butler wanted to see what kinds of reports the officer generates as well as how they are written.

Adding officers is a priority now for the department, which has been bleeding officers for the past several years because of what is perceived as a low starting salary and the amount of time it takes for an officer to “max out,” or receive the maximum rate of pay, which would be a yearly salary of about $54,000 a year. Officers received a 1% raise, and the starting salary was bumped up from $14.92 an hour to a little more than $16 an hour.

This summer, City Council agreed to shave two steps off the amount of time it takes for officers to max out.

But before they hit the streets for training, the background progress also takes several months to make sure that the department has the ideal candidate — someone who can handle high amounts of stress while also being able to relate to people.

Police Chief Robin Lees said the background checks are essential in an era of increased police scrutiny.

“It’s absolutely imperative that we get a true picture of the individual who we would be entrusting with the awesome responsibility of being a police and those associated duties,” Lees said.

To do this, Butler relies on Detective Sgt. Carl Davis, who also works in his office, and a cadre of other officers who do basic background checks on candidates.

The process begins after candidates take the written entry-level exam and a physical exam. From those two tests, the top 25% are called back in to fill out a 25-page application.

Part of the application is a personal history, which candidates are asked to fill out. Those portions of the exams are given to the background investigators, who are other officers in the department, to check through and see if there are any red flags.

Under Ohio law, there are several reasons why a person can not be a police officer. Among them is a felony conviction.

When the background investigations are completed, Butler gets involved.

He visits police departments where the applicant lived to see if his or her name is in any police reports, or if the police have ever been to the person’s home.

He also talks to neighbors where the applicants lived, teachers, if available, ex-girlfriends or boyfriends, or ex-spouses.

Recently, Butler went to the Hubbard Police Department to check on a candidate who is a part-time officer there.

Butler wants to talk to interim City Police Chief Bob Thompson about the officer. He’ll also review reports that the candidate has written about incidents and arrests he has made as a part-time officer, as well as read the officer’s personnel file.

Thompson said he likes the officer. The candidate is “proactive,” which means he looks for things out of the ordinary rather than just wait for a call to be sent on.

The candidate is also eager to learn, Thompson said. The candidate asked a lot of questions to his training officer when he was undergoing training and still asks questions of veteran officers whenever he gets the chance.

“He’s always willing to learn and listen,” Thompson said.

The candidate also played football in high school, which gives him the experience of being part of a team, Thompson said.

Butler told Thompson he already talked to the candidate’s girlfriend and her mother. The latter person usually is one who gives a good evaluation of a candidate, Butler said.

“They’re always very honest,” Butler said.

With the city’s woes in keeping young patrol officers because of the starting salary, Butler knows he could easily lose the candidate after he is hired. In fact, Hubbard has four officers who used to be Youngstown patrol officers, with three of them joining the force in just the last year. It is a running joke between Butler and Thompson.

One thing in the city’s favor, Butler said, is it has a large department with opportunities for advancement and duty in other divisions, such as detectives, vice, the Crime Lab or traffic. That could be attractive to a candidate who wants to diversify in their law enforcement career or who would like to be a supervisor someday.

When Butler is done talking to Thompson, he goes to the candidate’s apartment building to interview his neighbors. Just one person is there, and he said he knows the candidate lives there but does not know him personally. The person tells Butler he has never noticed anything wrong or out of the ordinary from the candidate or his apartment. Butler leaves business cards in the mailboxes of the other tenants asking them to call him.

Butler said his visit to Hubbard was a good one and called the candidate “an excellent fit for the police department.”

Butler also searches an applicant’s social media history to make sure there are no alarming posts. The applicant also goes on a “ride-along” with a city police officer, preferably on the afternoon shift, where the department receives about 50% of the calls it takes.

When the ride-along is completed, Butler asks the officer who rode with the applicant questions about the applicant, such as if the person was attentive or curious.

When that is all done, Butler then types up a report for Lees on the applicant’s suitability to be hired.

After that, the applicant is then given a lie detector test that also measures stress. The candidate is asked 31 “yes” or “no” questions. A credit check is also done, Butler said.

If all goes well, the candidate then has an interview with Lees and Butler. They then are sent to take a personality test, Butler said.

When a new officer hits the road on his or her own after the person is hired, it is a culmination of at least four months with a Field Training Officer, or FTO. Actually, an officer will have more than one FTO, because he or she works each of the department’s three shifts before being assigned a shift and a car of their own. The officer is also on a one-year probationary period after he or she is hired.

Lees said the department has a good system for checking and hiring new officers, but they are always looking to fine-tune it. He said Butler receives regular training as well on how to check into potential applicants for police positions.

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