The price of police background checks

How much is too much to pay for a background check to apply for a job or to volunteer for a non-profit group such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters or a school breakfast program?

It’s a question worth asking in Halifax, where the fees to check if a person has past criminal convictions are $50 for job applicants and $30 for volunteers. Compare those fees with other municipalities which have their own police forces: in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, a job applicant’s background check costs $30, but is free for volunteers. In Truro, the fee is $25 for job applicants and zero for volunteers.

And in municipalities where the RCMP perform background checks (e.g. Wolfville, Windsor, Bible Hill), there is no fee for either job applicants or volunteers.

So by comparison, background checks conducted by police and RCMP in HRM appear to be — depending on your point of view — either a “profit centre” or a cash cow.

That conclusion is based on a report prepared by the police for a meeting of the Board of the Halifax Police Commission in February 2017. The document shows that in 2015, HRM received nearly 27,000 requests for record checks which generated $1,273,824 in revenues for the City. The Halifax Examiner has filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain totals and net revenue figures for 2016 and 2017. A police spokesperson said that information was unavailable and will take time to prepare.

According to the report, the average cost of a background check in 2015 was $21.13. This folds in the different costs for checks done by Halifax Regional Police and the Halifax District RCMP ($19.25), and by myBackCheck — a subcontractor in British Columbia which processes online applications ($23).

The online option is a convenience which spares a trip to the police station to apply in person for a background check. It costs the city nearly $4 more for each check. Still, the city’s $30 fee for volunteers amounts to a 42 per cent markup, and the $50 fee for job applicants a markup of 136 per cent. The wait for results from the record check varies from a few days to a couple of weeks.

Volunteer agencies contacted by the Examiner were unaware of the gap between the cost of service and the fees they pay. Jonathan Leard has been the manager of service delivery at Big Brothers and Big Sisters Halifax for 10 years. He remembers some grumbling when the fees for volunteers jumped from $15 to $30 back in 2011. Today he says complaints are limited to “it would be nice” if volunteers didn’t have to pay.

“The $30 fee is not identified to us as a barrier, but the cost is well-known,” says Leard. “So people on a fixed income don’t even bother to pick up the phone and inquire about becoming a volunteer because they know it will be $30.”

As well as discouraging recruitment among people who might have much to offer and gain from the experience, Leard suspects the policy may have another unintended consequence. “We do lose quite a few people who sign up to volunteer after they have completed and received their police check,” he says. “It makes me wonder if they are registering with us as an easy way to get a discounted police check.”

The law allows police forces to charge what they deem appropriate for a service designed to protect youth, the elderly, or vulnerable persons (including refugees and persons with disabilities) from people with a record for past criminal code offences or unpardoned sexual offences. That protection, of course, is limited; it doesn’t prevent breaches of trust by employees or volunteers in the present or future. The decision of whether to require a background check — how much value to place on it and how frequently it should be done — is a decision left up to the employer or volunteer agency.

“The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Halifax pays for staff checks, but volunteers must pay their own costs,” says Veronica McNeil, the director of operations. “We require them but have found the checks are not the best tool to weed out bad apples,” adds McNeil. She says they have found having  proper on-site supervision of volunteers is more significant.

Groups such as Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and ISANS (Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia) all require first-time volunteers to get a background check if they haven’t had one in the previous six months. Many organizations have volunteers sign a declaration or oath that extends their clearance for a year or more before they must pay for another one.

Councillor Steve Craig chairs the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners. Earlier this year, during the preparation of the police budget, the Board proposed eliminating the $30 fee for volunteers requiring background checks. The cost to the City would have been $252,200. But City Council sent the entire budget back to the Police Commission with orders to find savings. Craig says the Police Commission chose to make no change to the fees.

“This wasn’t an easy decision, because this is something we would like to have done for people who are doing good for others,” said Craig, a former board member of the Canadian Cancer Society. “The police budget had to come within the overall budget envelope and we had an arbitrated 2.75 per cent annual increase in police salaries that will see a constable with five years experience making over $100,000 by 2020 — that’s an upward pressure! We also looked at eliminating community police officers in schools, so we could table a police budget within the envelope council requested. At the end of the day, we didn’t decrease the fee.”

The inference is that the surplus from fees collected from background checks stays within the police department to cross-subsidize other services (such as community policing). However, Craig was unable to provide a definitive answer on whether that’s actually the case or whether some of the money ends up in general revenue.

Nor was he able to explain why there seems to be a significant gap between the cost of providing a background check and the fee charged to the public. “It’s a valid question but I don’t have the answer for you,” said the chair of the Board of the Halifax Police Commissioners.

The business of providing background checks and making money from the service is growing, according to Laura Smith Howlett, communications manager for Commissionaires Nova Scotia. The organization provides jobs for ex-military and ex-police officers. It entered the record check business in 2006, and now competes for customers with the RCMP and local police forces.

Smith-Howlett says Commissionaires do “hundreds of checks” a year in Nova Scotia (they are also hired on contract by the police forces to deal with the workload). The commissionaires’ volume got a boost in February 2017, when the federal government began requiring all sub-contractors to ensure their employees have record checks. The fee charged by the Commissionaires is $31 for job applicants and $26 for volunteers, realtors, and insurance agents.

The commissionaires’ fees are not only lower than those charged by the HRM police, but their service is faster than the cop shop’s. Applicants can walk out of the office with their record check in 15 minutes, provided they do not require a vulnerable sector check. Commissionaires search the CPIC (Canadian Police Information Centre) database for convictions, the same database they use when hired under contract by the RCMP or local police force.

The Commissionaires are not permitted to conduct vulnerable sector checks, which involve searching an additional database maintained by the RCMP which shows the status and whereabouts of known sex offenders. Individuals unlucky enough to have the same name or birthdate as someone convicted of a criminal offence are required to pay a $25 fee to the federal government to have fingerprints taken to confirm their identity — unless they are a volunteer, in which case the fingerprinting is free.

That might register as a small victory for volunteers in HRM. But the larger question remains. If police forces who are paid to protect the public — especially our most vulnerable citizens — can provide the background check service with either lower or no “user pay” fees in the rest of Nova Scotia, why does HRM go beyond “cost recovery” and use this often required check for job applicants and volunteers to generate a profit?

“It’s not something we are focused on or have looked at,” says Craig. “On an ongoing basis, perhaps we should be re-evaluating what our cost structures are for background checks.”

“Although the fee is significant to some people,” Craig continued, “in the overall context of the police budget, it isn’t very much. Especially considering the annual budget for policing services (including the RCMP component) is now over $100-million a year.”

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. The decision of whether or not to require a check isn’t /really/ up to the organization. If most orgs doing similar work do it, then it is a de facto standard, and doing it is effectively mandatory to demonstrate due diligence. So no one will knock on your door and assess a fine if you don’t, but your lawyer will likely tell you that you should, and describe dire consequences if you don’t.