Early warning systems for police

Early warning systems fail to flag problem police

With the increasing scrutiny police behavior has received lately, early warning systems (EWS) are being considered as a way for department managers to spot troubled officers and strengthen citizen trust in the police.

These systems analyze officer behavior–poor attendance, complaints, use of force and vehicle collisions—in an effort to flag potential problem officers before their behavior hurts citizens or fellow officers, embarrasses their employer or invites a lawsuit.

But a recent Los Angeles Police Department’s inspector general’s report questions the accuracy of the technology behind the EWS.

The Police Commission's inspector general, Alex Bustamante, studied an EWS that has been in use by the LAPD since 2007 to track excessive force and other police misconduct patterns. The system “routinely flags officers who appear to pose no problem while failing to catch many of those who do,” according to an article in the LA Times.

“Based on the [IG’s] review it appears that the EWS requires a substantial time commitment from department personnel while providing limited predictive capabilities,” the LAPD summarized on its blog.

The LAPD signed an agreement with the Department of Justice in 2001, which mandated that LAPD install an EWS after the Rampart scandal in which an elite anti-gang unit was found to have beaten and framed suspected gang members.

Training Evaluation and Management System II (TEAMS II), is a collection of applications that gather data on officer activity and provide consolidation, analysis and reporting on that data for use by various management offices within the LAPD. 

The system integrates an Oracle relational database, Cognos reporting, Websphere application server, commercial off the shelf application components as well as custom developed applications, such as the Risk Management Information System, the Use of Force System and the Complaint Management System, according to the TEAMS II statement of work.

Bustamante recommended a review and modification of its EWS. An independent research team, Justice & Security Strategies (JSS), will be conducting the “comprehensive evaluation” of the system.

The IG report, which was unavailable on the LAPD’s website, examined nearly 750 warnings about officers generated over a recent four-month period. “In 70 percent of the cases, supervisors took no action after determining that the conduct flagged by the computer system did not point to any problems,” noted the LA Times.

LAPD is not alone with its EWS problems. Police departments across the country are using the systems, despite a lack of research on their effectiveness to spot and work with troubled officers before they act inappropriately, according to the Associated Press. At least 39 percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide are using these systems, according to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, AP reported.

It’s not just the technology, however, that is at fault. A big question remains whether departments are correctly using and acting on the information provided by their systems.

"It's not a guarantee that you will catch all of those officers that are struggling," Jim Bueermann of the nonprofit Police Foundation, dedicated to better policing, told the AP. "These systems are designed to give you a forewarning of problems, and then you have to do something."

That concern is echoed by other agency oversight entities. A report by City of New Orleans Office of Inspector General found flaws with that agency’s management of its early warning system, reported The Times-Picayune.

"Inspectors found numerous shortcomings in the NOPD (early warning) program, but none of them was the result of the current database," the report stated. "Program design and management problems undermined the program's credibility and effectiveness."

The report came as NOPD requested $5 million in funds to update its EWS technology.

Those concerns aren’t stopping interest in the technology, though. Most recently Richard Emery, chairman of the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York, asked the New York Police Department to develop an early warning system tentatively called Cop-Stat, to tabulate police abuse claims and alert NYPD officials to potentially problem officers, reported the New York Daily News

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the origin of the New Orleans IG report.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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