Big data helps police spot bad apples - if they use it - Albuquerque Journal

Big data helps police spot bad apples – if they use it

The Justice Department’s investigation of Baltimore police this month rebuked the agency for an entrenched culture of discriminatory policing. Deep within their findings, Justice investigators singled out a core failure: Baltimore’s system for identifying troubled officers was broken and existed in name only.

In Baltimore, Justice found that critical disciplinary records were excluded from its early intervention system, that police supervisors often intervened only after an officer’s behavior became egregious and that when they did, the steps they took were inadequate.

Justice highlighted the case of an unnamed officer who was criminally charged after he shot at a car as it drove toward him. When investigators looked into the officer’s background, they found that he had been involved in two prior shootings, had a history of complaints for harassment and excessive force, and had been flagged repeatedly in the early intervention system.

“The Department failed to respond to those alerts in a way that could have uncovered the officer’s condition or otherwise allowed for an intervention,” Justice reported.

The problems with Baltimore’s early intervention system are not isolated to police in that city. In numerous departments nationwide, police have failed to use early intervention systems effectively, Justice has found. Since 1994, 36 civil rights investigations by Justice discovered that local agencies had deeply flawed early intervention systems or no system in place at all, according to a review of those investigations by The Washington Post.

The Newark (New Jersey) Police Department abandoned its early intervention system after just one year and lost track of more than 100 officers who had been flagged for monitoring, Justice found in 2014.

Justice told the Harvey (Illinois) Police Department in suburban Chicago to adopt a system in 2012 after its officers were accused of excessive force. The department’s system logged tardiness and grooming violations, but it failed to track lawsuits alleging misconduct or abuse, The Post found.

The New Orleans Police Department’s system was found in 2011 to be “outdated and essentially exists in name only,” Justice said. Rank-and-file officers mocked the system and considered inclusion a “badge of honor.”

Early intervention systems are supposed to collect a wide range of public and private information and use predictive modeling to determine whether officers are prone to misconduct. Once an officer is flagged, a supervisor is supposed to intervene, heading off potential problems.

Justice, which has investigated dozens of police departments nationwide for civil rights violations, considers early intervention systems critical to reforming embattled agencies. Some of the troubled police departments had early intervention systems and collected information about officers’ behavior but did nothing with the data, investigators found.

“There was nobody actually reading it, or looking at it and evaluating it, and then taking action thereafter,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “You can have a system and technology, but you actually need human beings to use the information, to act on it and to analyze it over time.”

Police accountability was thrust into the spotlight just over two years agowhen a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Missouri. That shooting and others led to calls for reforms nationwide. Recent fatal shootings by police in Minnesota, Louisiana and Wisconsin have reignited the debate. (In 2015, The Post began tracking all fatal shootings by on-duty police officers, an effort that continues this year.)

Many of the Justice Department’s civil rights probes into local police agencies have been prompted by allegations that police have a pattern of using excessive force against civilians. One of the areas that Justice scrutinizes is whether departments have functioning early intervention systems.

In Ferguson, for example, one of Justice’s key findings was that police records were so “incomplete and scattered” that the department was unable to implement an early intervention system. In February, Justice settled the case, ordering a broad range of reforms, including the creation of such a system.

The Justice Department began investigating Baltimore police for civil rights violations after Freddie Gray, 25, suffered a fatal spine injury in the back of a police van in April 2015. Officers who arrested Gray failed to secure him in the van, and he died several days later from his injuries. Prosecutors charged six officers in Gray’s death, but the cases ended in a mistrial, acquittals or dismissed charges.

Earlier this month, Justice said that its 14-month investigation revealed that officers in Baltimore discriminated against black residents, violated people’s civil rights with unconstitutional arrests, used excessive force and retaliated against police critics. On Aug. 10, city leaders promised sweeping reforms in the 2,600-officer force and said that they would work with Justice officials to hammer out the details.

As part of those reforms, Baltimore police will likely be told to fix the early intervention system or create a new one, as has happened in many of the cities where Justice has intervened.

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist who has extensively studied the systems, said police departments could prevent officer misconduct if they adopted intervention systems and actively used them.

“I think a lot of them [police leaders] give lip service to it because it’s important to have one, but they don’t really use it,” Alpert said.

Nationwide, the first early intervention systems are thought to have been adopted by police agencies in Florida in the late 1970s. Miami police implemented a system after complaints about officer misconduct, and Miami-Dade police did so after four white officers were acquitted of beating to death a black insurance salesman.

Other police departments followed their lead after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1981 issued a report called “Who is Guarding the Guardians?” that looked at police misconduct. It called for police departments to devise systems “to assist officials in early identification of violence-prone officers.” About 10 percent of any department’s officers cause 90 percent of its problems, according to estimates.

Early systems varied. In some departments, supervisors tracked officers by writing their questionable actions on index cards, which were then placed in an officer’s personnel file. Other departments implemented electronic databases that tracked one or two categories of information, such as citizen complaints and the use of force, Alpert said.

In recent years, the databases have become more sophisticated, recording dozens of variables, analyzing patterns and sending emails to supervisors on their cellphones. Some departments even track reports of domestic violence or work-related traffic accidents.

Experts say departments are increasingly adopting the systems, but it’s unclear how many have done so.

When an officer is flagged too many times, a supervisor is supposed to sit down with the officer to discuss the incident, and if warranted, the officer should be retrained or receive counseling.

In 2007, the Los Angeles Police Department implemented one of the nation’s most elaborate systems following the Rampart scandal in the late 1990s, a wide-ranging corruption probe that began when an officer shot and paralyzed a suspected gang member and then planted a gun to cover it up.

The Justice Department investigated Los Angeles police and forced them to adopt an intervention system for its 10,000 officers. To help do so, police studied the behavior of officers involved in the Rampart scandal and others who had been sued for major misconduct, said David Doan, the now-retired deputy chief who oversaw the study.

The findings helped develop the criteria by which officers are flagged in the system, which pulls information from a dozen databases. Too many sick days may be an indicator of alcoholism, Doan said. Too many traffic accidents may point to aggressive behavior.

But even the Los Angeles system, which cost $4.2 million, has had challenges. In 2014, the inspector general for the police department found that of the 40 police officers fired within a two-year period, three-fourths had never been flagged or were flagged only once in five years.

“No system is perfect,” Doan said. “And if you think it is, you’ve got a problem.”

Funded by a Justice Department grant, Alpert studied whether early intervention systems were effective, taking a deeper look at how they worked for police in Miami-Dade, Minneapolis and New Orleans.

“In all three sites, complaints or use of force reports declined by about two-thirds for those officers” subject to intervention, his 2000 report concluded. The study, however, said it is unclear whether an officer’s behavior changes in the long run.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said that early intervention systems are double-edged. When used effectively, he said, they can correct officers who are “developing bad habits.” But, he said, the systems also “can be used as a weapon for retaliation by management for dealing with personality conflicts.”

Justice Department investigators found that of the 18 departments that already had intervention systems, more than half were excluding important information.

In 2008, Justice told the Austin (Texas) Police Department that its criteria were so open-ended that officers were not being flagged. “[T]here was no specific threshold that the APD was using that would trigger a review of an officer’s conduct,” the report said. Only three officers on the department had been flagged, Justice said.

Austin police Lt. Richard Guajardo called the report “accurate” and said the system had been operating only a year at that point. “It was brand-new; we were still working the kinks out,” Guajardo said.

Outside Chicago, the Harvey Police department had no early intervention system in place before Justice investigated the 71-officer department in 2012. Justice told Harvey to create an early-warning system that included lawsuits against officers.

Harvey’s system was implemented in March 2014. At the time, Officer Richard Jones, 47, and the city were facing a federal lawsuit, which was settled three months later for $500,000.

The case was not included in the system, police said.

In the lawsuit, Kwamesha Sharp said that in 2011 she was 17 years old and pregnant and coming home from an ultrasound appointment. When she arrived at the house, police were investigating a domestic dispute. She alleged that Jones wrestled her to the ground, rolled her onto her back and “kneed her in the abdomen,” causing her to miscarry. Jones arrested Sharp, and she was charged with battery and resisting arrest, although she was later acquitted in court.

Jones’s attorney in the case, Cliff Kosoff, told The Post that there was no way to prove that the incident caused Sharp’s miscarriage. “The evidence was that she was interfering with a lawful arrest and the force used by this officer was reasonable,” Kosoff said.

In January of this year, another federal lawsuit was filed against Jones and the city of Harvey, alleging sexual assault. In the complaint, a 20-year-old woman said that she met Jones in June 2015 and that he began calling her. She said that two months later, he pulled her over for driving without a license, then led her to a weedy gravel lot. There, she alleges in the lawsuit, he forced her to have sex with him. She said she went to the hospital for an examination and filed a complaint with the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, which told The Post that it is investigating.

In response to the lawsuit, Jones said in a court filing that he had previously spoken to the woman and once issued a warning to her for parking on a sidewalk. But he denied stopping her for driving without a license and said that he never assaulted her. His attorney in the case, Ken Hurst, said Jones declined to comment. Hurst also declined to comment because the case is pending.

That case also was not included in the early intervention system, police said.

Police officials said they were aware of both lawsuits, which received media coverage, but did not include them because the department policy was to track a lawsuit only if it was part of a complaint accompanied by a notarized affidavit.

When pressed for a copy of this policy, Harvey officials said they consulted with city attorneys and determined that they would track all lawsuits going forward.

Harvey Police Chief Denard Eaves said the change will allow supervisors to “at the push of a button” see how many times an officer has been sued and determine whether “we need to talk to this individual and/or talk to our legal representation.”

Since Harvey began using its system, officials said Jones had been flagged four times and had four interventions: three for calling in sick and once for “grooming standards” because he grew a beard, which is against department policy.

Jones resigned from the department in July, records show.

The Justice Department found that some troubled police departments had abandoned their early intervention systems.

In 2010, the Newark Police Department implemented a system for its nearly 1,000 officers. While investigating the department in 2014 for complaints about racial profiling and excessive force, Justice investigators found that 100 officers had been identified in the system for monitoring, but the department couldn’t provide documents detailing what, if anything, happened to them.

One year after the system was put in place, it was defunct, investigators found.

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said he can’t address what happened because he wasn’t with the department at the time, but he said the system is functioning now.

“You can have all the early-warning signs, but if no one’s looking at it or following up on it, then you have failure,” Ambrose said.

When the New Orleans Police Department was investigated in 2011 for racial profiling and other issues, federal investigators found that data was “haphazardly” entered, and there was only one type of intervention – a class for officers. Officers were sent so often that it was nicknamed the “bad boy school” and was viewed by some as a “badge of honor,” according to Justice’s investigation.

New Orleans police officials, now under federal supervision, have set aside $4 million to install a new system, which is expected to launch in the fall.

“It’s the difference between a Model T and a Maserati,” Jonathan Wisbey, deputy chief of staff for police, said of the old system and the new system.

The Metropolitan Police Department in the District has struggled to improve its early intervention system after Justice investigated in 2001 because of a spate of fatal officer-involved shootings.

Since then, the department, which has 3,900 officers, has cycled through three systems, Chief Cathy Lanier said.

The first $2 million system was custom-designed and didn’t work, Lanier said. The department sued the vendor, recouping $1 million, Lanier said. The second system didn’t go far enough to identify misconduct-prone officers, she said. The current system is a hybrid of the second system and a police review board that was instituted three years ago.

Officers are flagged by amassing points. Lanier said she meets monthly with supervisors to discuss flagged officers, along with others who may be of concern.

Lanier said that having worked with three early intervention systems taught her a valuable lesson: “You can’t put everything into a computer and expect it to do the job for you.”


In 2015, The Washington Post began tracking cases nationwide and compiled a database of all fatal shootings by officers in the line of duty. The project has expanded this year to include details about the officers involved. View the 2016 database here.


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