Like most of our 21st century society, the police background check has been transformed by the Internet and the computerization of records. A procedure that once took months can now often be performed within minutes. Moreover, the term "police background check" has become more generic than specific, since police are no longer the only investigators.
With increased public attention being paid to drug-free workplaces, crimes against children and the possibility of terrorist infiltration, the odds of a police background check being conducted on an individual have greatly expanded. Federal, state, and local enforcement agencies all keep extensive records, the most basic reflecting court verdicts and arrest records. In addition, certain specific databases have evolved, such as the Sex Offenders' Registry and the information gathered by the Office of Homeland Security.
Now that states have largely coordinated their individual records, a basic police background check focusing on felonies can be done almost instantaneously. This is especially advantageous in conducting the "instant" information retrieval required for gun purchases or providing a traffic officer critical information on the owner of a vehicle he has just pulled over.
Other searches take longer, sometimes considerably longer. And it would be impossible for the police -- especially in smaller communities -- to find time to investigate even a small percentage of the myriad requests for police background checks that arise. Even prospective volunteers are often checked through law enforcement databases, especially if they are to be working with children. With the frequency of such background checks, the stigma of being the focus of one has largely disappeared.
Beyond that, of course, there are the requests from the owners of rental properties seeking information on prospective tenants, people embarking upon relationships wanting to make sure they aren't dating a serial killer, and a myriad of other background checks regarding financial viability. These are instances in which federal, state and local law enforcement agencies would likely not involve themselves unless a high possibility existed that a crime had been committed. Filling the gap are companies that will offer a police background check for a fee, usually focusing on information freely available to any citizen.
Some risks come with employing these firms. Unlike the police, who have a vested interest in ferreting out those with criminal records, private companies may or may not be as diligent. Moreover, if someone were to be turned down for a job because of erroneous information -- such as being identified with a crime actually committed by someone else with the same name -- the result might be an expensive lawsuit.