Early warning

   The image of the tarnished badge is sometimes used to describe a law enforcement officer who no longer shines as bright as he or she should. Something that's tarnished doesn't represent a professional law enforcement agency as it should. But like a badge that's well taken care of, a responsible officer can represent the nation's finest.

   In the early 1990s, some of the badges at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD) were not shining. Four controversial shootings, which took place after the Rodney King incident in 1991, led the LASD to develop a database of officer performance. Judge James Kolts, appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to assess the LASD, said the department was exposing itself and the county to excessive risk by not keeping track of statistics to help determine which deputies are likely to use more force than necessary. In 1992, Kolts recommended and the county board mandated that the department construct a system to identify these officers. Once trends in potential performance problems were identified, the department would intervene with training or counseling, and in a sense, prevent a badge from tarnishing. The hope was that officers would avoid formal discipline, and the department would avoid lawsuits and damage to its reputation.

   According to the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC), in 1992 the LASD became the first U.S. law enforcement agency to develop a computerized, highly sophisticated relational database to serve as an early identification or tracking system to discover problem officers and those who might potentially become problem officers. The system became operational department-wide in 1997.

   PARC has free access to the Personnel Performance Index (PPI). Merrick Bobb, president and founding director of PARC, was appointed by the board of supervisors as a police monitor.

The PPI works

   One of the things PARC looked at was whether a computer can accurately identify possible problem officers and help prevent police misconduct.

   An in-depth study by the PARC says yes, it can. In its 27th semiannual report, PARC uses statistical analysis and research to conclude that the LASD's PPI works.

   Lt. Judy Gerhardt, LASD Discovery Unit supervisor and PPI administrator, says, "PPI was designed as an early warning system to identify trends in employee performance." The PPI catalogs employee administrative investigations, operational vehicle investigations, civil claims, lawsuits, use of force, use of lethal force (officer-involved shootings), public commendations and complaints, and internal commendations. Managers (commanders and above) have access to different parts of the system at different security levels. They can look at use of force, citizen complaints and lawsuits relating to one officer, or across an entire unit. Looking at trends individually or collectively, Gerhardt says the LASD can then use the data to address specific needs in training and redirect resources, if necessary.

   The Performance Mentoring Committee, which considers officers for inclusion in a sustained behavioral intervention program, queries the PPI monthly to identify potential officers of interest.

   Bobb has monitored the LASD for 16 years and describes the PPI as a vital tool. A lawyer, Bobb was the first to occupy the role of police monitor. He served as deputy legal counsel on the Christopher Commission to reform the LAPD after the Rodney King incident and as general counsel of the Kolts investigation of the LASD.

   "An early warning system is at the core of a series of recommendations about how to deal with possible problem officers' use of force," he says. "It helps agencies deal with problems before they really fester and become serious problems."

Clear strides in risk management

   Research conducted by PARC and Bobb shows that early identification systems and subsequent targeted intervention reduce police misconduct. PARC research also has shown that as a result of having an early warning and tracking system, LASD has substantially reduced its exposure to litigation, and when the department does face litigation, the payout is reduced.

   Bobb applauded the LASD and its Risk Management Bureau for its "recent and relatively stable" decreases in lawsuits brought against the department. In its 25th semiannual report in 2008, PARC looked at the last six full years of litigation against the LASD from 2001-2002 to 2006-2007. (The county's fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.) PARC found the number of new lawsuits filed against the department was down. In 2001-2002, there were 282 new lawsuits. In 2006-2007, there were 208 new lawsuits. More importantly, Bobb says looking at fiscal year 2004-2005 through 2006-2007, the department averaged 231 new lawsuits per year, which is nearly an 18 percent drop.

   A good deal of an agency's success in managing risk may be said to reside in the number of lawsuits not filed, Bobb says. So the drop in the number of new lawsuits, he says, suggests the LASD's risk management strategies are making a difference.

   Force-related litigation can generate high costs, large settlements and negative publicity. Here, too, PARC found the number of new force-related lawsuits and the number of closed force-related lawsuits resulting in payout were trending down. There were 78 new force-related lawsuits in 2001-2002 and 66 in 2006-2007.

   While the numbers have moved up and down, a comparison of three-year averages reveals that generally the number of new force-related lawsuits has trended down. In the most recent three-year period, the department saw an average of 62 new force-related lawsuits per year. The number of force cases requiring a payout by the county have gone down. And while the overall numbers of cases requiring payment have fluctuated, the LASD lost or settled an average of 23 cases per year for the most recent three-year period of the study, compared to about 30 per year for the similar preceding period.

   More importantly, Bobb says the percentage of force cases that the county closes, whether by dismissal, verdict, or settlement, that require at least some payout to the plaintiff, appears to be trending down. The average percentage of cases that required payment, due to settlement or verdict against the department, was about 35 percent in the three-year period from fiscal year 2004-2005 through 2006-2007, compared to the nearly 44 percent of cases that required payout in the preceding three-year period from 2001-2002 through 2003-2004.

   In looking at the effectiveness of the PPI, PARC used multiple regression analysis, which does not allow for predictions for specific officers. In bold print, the study says, "We cannot predict that Officer Jones will become involved in a shooting because he has five allegations of excessive force. We can say that five allegations of excessive force for officers in general are related to officers being involved in an additional shooting."

   PARC's 2009 research looked at 561 randomly selected, full-time officers with at least three years' worth of data in the PPI database.

Why it works

   The 27th semiannual report explains why the PPI works: Substandard behavior does not usually exist in isolation or occur randomly. It is related to other behavior that the PPI captures systematically. In other words, a good badge isn't going to tarnish overnight, but it's going to show signs of not being taken care of. The study shows an officer that becomes involved in an incident that's especially harmful to the department or community will have a history of problematic behavior.

   The PPI not only reveals these relationships, but also the magnitude of these relationships. It identifies behaviors that are typically associated with other potentially problematic behavior that the LASD wants to minimize.

   Specifically:

  • Misuse of force allegations in administrative investigations are associated with a higher average number of shootings, lawsuits and civil claims.
  • Citizen's complaints alleging "unreasonable force" are associated with higher levels of "founded" administrative investigations.
  • The likelihood of finding officers whose truthfulness and candor has been or will be questioned grows as the number of "unresolved" findings rise.
  • Allegations in administrative investigations including "performance to standards," "derogatory language," "absence," "false statements" and "Policy of Equality" allegations had particularly noteworthy relationships to higher levels of other potentially problematic behavior.

   According to the report, these examples indicate that the PPI is functioning as it was intended.

Adapting to change

   In writing reports, PARC suggests how the LASD can improve. Gerhardt says, "We take each of their recommendations and comments and evaluate them as a department at many different levels to determine whether they are going to be implemented."

   The PPI isn't the same as it was when it first became operational 13 years ago. As policies change, the PPI changes. A traffic collision policy changed a few years ago. "They used to be handled with discipline and now they are handled through non-disciplinary corrective action," Gerhardt explains "The PPI had to be modified to absorb that change. As PPI users identify areas where it can be improved upon, it is. Different reports may be generated. Different fields may be added."

   Because the PPI has been operational since 1997, Gerhardt says, "I think employees understand its purpose and realize it's something that's not detrimental to their work performance. They have access to the information regarding themselves within the PPI, so it's not a secret. I think the PPI has become part of the department."

   Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.


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