Policing the Police

Oakland, Calif., tackles police misconduct issues with database.

by / October 4, 2004
The Oakland, Calif., Police Department, stinging from accusations about renegade officers, will be under a microscope when its new Personnel Information Management System (PIMS) is implemented in 2005.

A lawsuit filed by dozens of plaintiffs alleging they were roughed up by a band of officers calling themselves "the Riders" was settled in 2003. Part of the settlement requires deployment of a tracking system to alert department brass of police misconduct.

The system will document use-of-force incidents, citizen complaints, attendance, shootings and accidents, as well as commendations, awards and letters of appreciation. Its main purpose is to help supervisors identify trends that might indicate an officer needs an intervention.

Oakland Police Capt. Jeff Israel said the system won't necessarily provide information that wasn't available before, but it will bring the data to the attention of higher-ups.

"The system alerts everybody, right up to the chief," Israel said. "It holds the supervisor all the way up the chain accountable for doing something about this identification. It's a tremendous risk management tool."

The Phoenix Model
The Oakland system may turn out to be an offshoot of a Phoenix, Ariz., Police Department application, which went live in January. Phoenix began developing its system in 2000, as requested by former chief Harold Hurtt, who saw the U.S. Department of Justice force other jurisdictions to develop similar tools. So he decided to be preemptive about implementing such a system, said one of the system's architects, Sgt. Ron Snodgrass.

Phoenix calls its application the Personnel Assessment System (PAS) because it emphasizes guiding employees, not necessarily disciplining them. A number of "thresholds," determined by management, are in the system. Here, the behavior of an officer or department employee is noted -- and it's not just for sworn officers in Phoenix; other department employees also have access to the system.

"We built the threshold screen so they could see exactly where they stood with our thresholds," Snodgrass said, adding that personnel know how close they are to violations that would yield an intervention. "They avoid those things. We basically get voluntary compliance with policy by them using the system themselves as an intervention tool.

"We can also use it as a risk management tool, if successful, reducing liability because we're finding problems and nipping them in the bud before they become greater problems and cost us millions of dollars down the road when we get sued," he said.

Phoenix police have encountered about 200 thresholds crossed by individuals. Around 95 percent of those were good employees and needed no intervention. The others may have needed a little help before things got out of hand.

For Phoenix, PAS is about "getting to people before they crash and burn, and kill somebody in a police pursuit, traffic accident or whatever," Snodgrass said.

The system, which runs on the Virtual BASIC programming language, refreshes itself nightly by collecting new information added that day. The data dates back five years, and each night deletes a day from five years ago.

Phoenix spent $475,000 on the project so far -- $350,000 went toward software, and the rest pays the salaries of Snodgrass and his two-person staff.

Oakland's Take
Oakland's goal is to thwart behavior that could lead to the kinds of problems that brought the lawsuit -- and the eventual $11 million settlement. It's not as easy as it sounds, even with a new system, Israel said.

"Just because you have a lot of use-of-force problems, incidents or attendance issues doesn't make you a bad officer," he said. "You have to do peer group comparisons."

An officer working in a busy area abundant with shootings during the middle of the night will be involved in more car chases and fights, and have more use-of-force incidents than an officer working in a less active downtown area at the same time.

That's where the human element comes in, and that's what will make or break the system, both Israel and Snodgrass said.

"The system is what it is -- it's just a database," Israel said. "It does provide certain thresholds. Three uses of force in a three-month period, and you might get a flag next to your name or the system might send an e-mail [to a supervisor] saying you better take a look at this guy. But all it's really doing is asking you to review it and look for patterns of misconduct."

The big hurdle for police agencies has been what happens when a pattern of misconduct has surfaced, he said. "We've identified Officer A. He's having attendance problems. He's working a ton of overtime. He's getting complaints. He doesn't have that many arrests, but he seems to have a higher level of complaints than his peers. That's really the second part of the puzzle," Israel said. "The system tells you, 'Here's a guy with a problem. How do you want to address this? What do you want to do about this, Chief?'"

Israel and Snodgrass agree about where the system's value is tested -- when it's time for supervisors to intervene. Israel said most supervisors know when an officer is misbehaving; they just have a hard time addressing the issues. Supervisors worry about de-policing or holding back an officer who makes a lot of arrests. "You don't want to cool the guy's jets," Israel said. "Here's a high performer, and all of a sudden he's going to counseling? What kind of message does that send?"

But Israel believes the system can work if it isn't just a disciplinary measure and employees are properly educated.

"It's very important to educate the troops and command, and even members of the community about what this thing is all about," he said, "because it does help build relationships with the community when they know you're not ignoring their complaints."

Israel lauded the San Francisco Police Department for its efforts in addressing officers' needs before things get out of hand.

"Some agencies are better than others," he said. "San Francisco has a behavioral sciences unit. Whether it's alcoholism or mental disorders, they're all over this. They have people on staff who are licensed psychologists."

Phoenix sees its system as educational for employees and as a chance to communicate policy to personnel.

Israel hopes the Oakland system becomes the same thing.

"We've all had points in our career when we questioned, 'Gee, did I really have to hit him that hard?' Or you look at a fellow officer and say, 'Gee, did you really have to shoot him four times?' We're always questioning ourselves," he said. "The way I look at and explain it is that this is all about saving careers."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor