Screening for Insider Threats in US Law Enforcement: A National Representative Sample of Department Policies and Practices

Screening for Insider Threats in US Law Enforcement: A National Representative Sample of Department Policies and Practices


For decades, extremist groups in the U.S—particularly on the far-right—have encouraged their members to infiltrate law enforcement agencies and the military. While there are anecdotal examples of insider threats in law enforcement, we do not have a systematic understanding of whether these are isolated incidents or indicative of a more pervasive issue. It is not feasible to examine officer-level risk of engagement as an insider threat at this time. Surveying police officers is a difficult endeavor due to access issues, intense public pressure and skepticism about participating in research, social desirability bias in answers, and lack of generalizability. Typically, officer surveys focus on a single or a few departments, which requires chief approval. Alternatively, any attempt to survey officers nationally suffers from selection effects. As such, the first step in addressing this gap in knowledge is to assess department-level policies and procedures which mitigate many of the concerns identified for officer-level surveys. Specifically, we are interested in what police executives and background investigators consider during hiring decisions, which types of individuals are being screened out of the hiring process, and how agencies elect to monitor and detect behaviors related to extremism and targeted violence among police officers.

We propose a multi-pronged approach to conduct formative research on insider threats in U.S. law enforcement. Broadly, we are interested in the extent to which law enforcement agencies around the country are concerned with potential insider threats in their departments. Our main objective is to better understand current policies and procedures to screen for and identify insider threats in the law enforcement hiring process and among active officers. The proposed project asks three specific research questions:

  1. How do law enforcement agencies currently conduct background screenings to identify potential insider threats during and after the hiring process?
  2. What information do law enforcement agencies around the country ask as part of their hiring and screening processes?
  3. What policies and procedures currently exist to mitigate risks from insider threats across U.S law enforcement departments?

Using a mixed-methods design, we propose to collect both survey data and archival data on hiring and screening policies and procedures from a stratified random sample of police departments and sheriff’s offices around the country. Findings from the proposed project will inform recommendations for best practices based on current knowledge and identify additional research directions. Specifically, we will identify best practices in screening applicants and current officers. From this, we will develop a toolkit for agencies to use for self-assessment and create an online training module for agencies as well. The proposed study lays the groundwork for future research including: 1) prevalence and risk assessments of insider threats among officers, 2) examinations of additional department-level risk and protective factors related to extremism and targeted violence, and 3) a process evaluation for agencies that use our implementation toolkit. More broadly, we aim to empower law enforcement agencies to be resilient to insider threats, and violent targeted messaging, by leveraging their policies and procedures while balancing the constitutional rights of all civilians.

When possible, this page will link to published and ongoing work from this project.