Q: John from New York writes: Hi Radek, I fell on some hard times and now my credit is bad. I want to work in law enforcement, but given my credit, do you think I can become a police officer with bad credit?
Q: Tracy from Illinois writes: I have a poor credit rating and I want to become a police officer or a federal agent. Do you think I can get a police officer job with bad credit?
John and Tracy are two long-time CJOB readers who comment or email me with questions about how credit (good or bad) affects their chances of obtaining jobs in law enforcement.
I’ll try to answer this collective question and these, too:
- Why does my credit play a role in being able to obtain a career in law enforcement / as a police officer?
- What if I have bad credit… should I completely forget about becoming a police officer / Sheriff’s deputy / federal agent?
- Is bad credit an automatic disqualifier in obtaining law enforcement jobs?
Why Do I Need Good Credit to Work in Law Enforcement?
Sounds simple, and you’re probably saying : duh!
However, there are many who embark on the path to a police officer career and are suddenly sideswiped during the application process by their credit. With the recent economical turmoil, many people were unable to pay their bills. It was either food, shelter, or the credit card bill for many folks.
Your credit is used to get the job in many government agencies, especially those that are law enforcement related. These can range from local governments all the way to the federal level, like those of:
- Special Agents: FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service and Diplomatic Security
- Customs and Border Protection Officers and Border Patrol Agents
- State Troopers and Highway Patrol
- Detectives and Investigators
- Deputy US Marshals
- Sheriff’s Deputies
- Police Officers
Love it or hate it, your credit is used to determine:
- Reliability — are you responsible and dependable? Can you be counted on?
- Trustworthiness — does your financial situation possibly make you susceptible to theft or taking bribes?
- Risk — how risky is it to hire you with bad credit? What’s the risk level to the police department and the general public?
Side note: Did you know that credit reports are heavily scrutinized when trying to obtain a security clearance through the federal government and the military?
Want to work for the federal government?
Q: If I have a poor credit history or other issues in my background, will this prevent me from getting a security clearance?
A: Poor credit history, or other issues, will not necessarily disqualify a candidate from receiving a clearance, but resolution of the issues will likely take additional time. If the issues are significant, they may prevent a clearance from being approved.
Essentially, when you’re done reading between the lines, you’ll find that obtaining a security clearance can be difficult if you have bad credit. Chances are, federal law enforcement will have to wait…
So, How Can I Get a Police Job if I Have Bad Credit?
It’s gonna be tough in certain jurisdictions and easier in others.
Not all police agencies are credit sticklers, especially those dealing in local and regional agencies.
Yes, credit is an important factor in determining if you’re going to be a safe bet, but it’s also one of many important factors that form a final determination.
If You Have Bad Credit, You Should Still Try and Apply
And try you should, especially if you are taking corrective steps to fix your credit.
I’ve asked around and for the most part the general consensus is that:
- Each applicant’s credit situation is reviewed on a case by case basis
- Applicant’s circumstances are taken into consideration
- Bad credit doesn’t always constitute an automatic disqualification*
* Certain law enforcement agencies have, what you would call, “automatic disqualification” for bad credit. It seems this is becoming less prevalent due to the recent financial hit United States took as a whole. Many well-meaning people fell on hard times. Unable to pay their bills on time, many have blemished their credit and some ruined it entirely.
Q: Will my bad credit score hurt my chances of becoming an officer?
A: It is to be determined on a case-by-case basis, and the economic downturn is taken into consideration. Your financial status is considered from a risk-management perspective. Making responsible fiscal choices and living within your means are examples of maturity and discipline, which may make you less susceptible to impropriety on the job.
The type of debt, especially how you handled it, matters — it’s not the credit score that is the end-all be-all — it’s what’s inside the credit report that counts.
Did you recklessly take out 7 credit cards and 2 loans and stopped paying down on them just a few months later? That’s probably going to look pretty bad.
Essentially, you will need to explain how you got into the financial hole and how you plan on getting out of it. Don’t be afraid of it! Embrace your status-quo and seize the day. Apply for the job anyway!
Q: Have you ever heard the expression “dirty cop” while watching a movie?
A: I’m sure you have. Police departments and LE agencies want to avoid the drama, negative press, and expensive law suits associated with “dirty cops”. A thorough background check, along with a review of your credit report, helps to statistically lower the odds of having “a bad apple” on the force.
Even if your credit is stellar, a high debt to income ratio can raise some flags, too. This is considered a risk because one may become prone to bribery, theft, evidence tampering, and misuse of departmental resources, amongst other things.
How long does my bad credit stay bad?
- It may take up to 7 years for your bad debts to be cleared from your credit record
- It may take up to 7 years for a judgement to be cleared from your credit report
- It may take up to 10 years for bankruptcies to clear your credit report
It all varies, and the above-mentioned figures don’t necessarily reflect every situation. Some negative entries on your credit report are cleared prior to the 7 year mark, some may stay longer due to credit bureau’s error — you gotta let them know to clear the negative entry after the max term expires. You would do so by filing a dispute with the credit bureau (most often, you can file a dispute when you obtain a copy of your credit report online).
Also, try writing to your creditor and ask them to remove the negative entry from your credit report. Explain the circumstances and list the steps you’re taking to fix the problem. Who knows, it might just work!
Where Can I Get My Credit Report?
Start for FREE!
Once every 12 months, the three leading credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — are to provide you with a free copy of your credit report based on the requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).
AnnualCreditReport.com is the website to go to in order to get that free copy of your credit report.
I use this free credit report service to check on my credit every 3 months. So, for example, I use Experian first, then TransUnion, and lastly, Equifax (use one every 3 months). Keep in mind that this Annual Credit Report doesn’t provide a credit score. It provides a valuable credit report that you can monitor for any changes and inconsistencies.
Also, your bank or credit card company may offer a free credit report (sometimes coupled with a free credit score) just for holding an account with them. Worth using in conjunction with the free option mentioned above.
PAID credit report options
I personally don’t need more than the free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com to see if my credit is in good standing, but here are more options to ease your mind.
These options either get you a credit report with a credit score, or you can opt for a month-to-month credit monitoring service through TransUnion, Experian or Equifax… or get the scoop on your credit situation from all three credit bureaus, if you wish…
Option #1 – Get your credit report with a credit score
- Obtain a free copy of your credit report via AnnualCreditReport.com. Then, pay for the credit score which is offered as an option during the sign up process. This will set you back about $5-$9, per credit report (one time charge).
- Obtain a paid copy of your credit report and score directly from Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. This will be more: around $15-$20 (one time charge).
- Obtain a paid copy of your credit report and score from each credit bureau — all in one place. You can use any of the three credit bureaus to access the 3 credit bureau credit report and score. Price is around $35-$40 a pop.
Option #2 – Get a credit monitoring service
- You’ll usually get a credit report and your credit score from the credit bureau every month. Most commonly, the included features are daily credit monitoring and dispute resolution support. Additional features may include monitoring of the other two credit bureaus, but it might not be as comprehensive. This can be useful when you need to keep an eye on your credit over a course of a few months or more. Prices vary. But, you should be able to get the service for under $20 per month.
Do you work for a law enforcement agency? How does your agency handle good and bad credit reports?
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- What Can I Do With an Online Criminal Justice Degree?
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- Criminal Justice Careers: Federal Agent
- Can I have a law enforcement career if I have tattoos?