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Cops Foiled by Computer Mandate 

Key Christopher Commission reform left to languish

Wednesday, Jun 30 1999
Art by Gustavo Vargas
Public outrage spikes with each incident of police violence in the news, whether it’s in New York, Riverside or Los Angeles. But the current flare-up of indignation over the police slaying of homeless woman Margaret Mitchell is likely to burn out long before it gives impetus to a central reform recommended by the blue-ribbon Christopher Commission — a long-stalled system to spot problem officers and head off violent incidents.

For eight years, institutional resistance within the Los Angeles Police Department, abetted by political indifference and bureaucratic snafus, has blocked the development of a sophisticated computerized tracking system for the LAPD that would identify officers headed for trouble. And if the process of implementing such a system continues at its present pace, it could be 2006 — 15 years after the initial Christopher Commission issued its recommendation — before one gets put in place.

"You could have built a rocket to the moon from the time they first started until now," marveled Gary Greenebaum, who was a member of the Police Commission charged with overseeing reforms from 1993 to 1995 and who described being sandbagged by hostile department staff in his efforts to establish computerized tracking of problem officers.

The LAPD currently has a rudimentary system in place, but officials agree it’s inadequate. Asked to comment, Chief Bernard Parks asserted, "The development of a technologically improved employee-tracking system is a very important project for us." Added Police Commissioner Gerry Chaleff, who chairs the commission’s Risk Management Committee, "Everybody wants this system."

Advocates of police reform are skeptical of that commitment, however. "They don’t want a system — the supervisors, the managers, don’t want it," said Don Cook, an attorney who specializes in police-misconduct litigation. "It forces them to hold officers more accountable." Carol Watson, another civil attorney who has brought cases against the LAPD, agreed. "They don’t want civil rights attorneys to get the information. They deprive themselves of the information to deprive us of the information."

In the meantime, taxpayers and citizens who encounter trigger-prone cops are paying the price for delays. One concrete measure: Since 1992, the city has paid out more than $100 million to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of alleged police misconduct.

It was nearly a decade ago — 1991 — when the Christopher Commission established the need for a comprehensive tracking system. Commission staff and consultants ran a computerized analysis of LAPD data and established a pattern for 183 officers who had piled up four or more complaints of excessive force and 44 that had six or more. The commission report noted that performance reviews were nonetheless favorable and that the presence of the unchecked, more aggressive officers undermined community confidence in the rest of the force.

As a solution, the commission proposed that "Guidelines for performance-evaluation reports must be revised to require supervisors to assess information from complaint histories, especially where a repetitive pattern exists."

The recommendation won the endorsement of city officials and was touted as a key step toward reforming a department that had alienated many of the communities it was designed to serve. But nobody was charged with putting a system in place, and the idea of a computerized clearing-house for complaints against individual officers languished. It was not until 1993 that Greenebaum, who was then president of the Police Commission, joined with fellow Commissioner Art Mattox and sought to get a system up and running.

But they couldn’t pry loose funding from the department. Chief Willie Williams made an interim budget request for $122,576 for a complaint-driven tracking system in October 1993, but the Mayor’s Office, at the time concerned with Mayor Richard Riordan’s campaign promise to boost the number of officers to 10,000, turned him down. That same year, the LAPD spent $660,707 on "marksmanship bonuses" and $6,044,805 on "contractual services" — services that presumably did not include designing a tracking system.

Reform advocates at the City Council also ran into roadblocks, these thrown up by the department itself. "I remember spending years, several frustrated years, to get the current system fully implemented," said Councilwoman Laura Chick, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee. "I had several meetings with then–Assistant Chief Ron Banks and heard convoluted explanations about inordinate staff time required to enter information [into the system], and it was just creeping and creeping along."

The Police Commission was caught in the middle, stymied between competing budgetary and political agendas. The commission backed Chief Williams’ budget request, according to former Commissioner Mattox, but didn’t turn to the City Council for help, because it was too late. "To go back to City Council after the mayor rejected it wouldn’t have been appropriate," he explained.

Finally, in April 1994, the Police Commission wrung $39,000 out of its own budget to pay a part-time systems analyst who would pull together department databases into a system with the macabre acronym OBITS — Officer Behavioral Internal Tracking System. The moniker, an apparent reflection of the department’s attitude toward the reform, was later changed to TEAMS — Training Evaluation and Management System.

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