MORE

Cops Foiled by Computer Mandate

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.

 

It was a small, first step. As it currently stands, TEAMS can’t put together information in a comprehensive form that would enable department managers to track potential high-risk officers — and head off misconduct and liability.

"TEAMS can’t put together complete and detailed information about officers’ patterns of conduct. It all has to be researched by hand," said Katherine Mader, the LAPD’s first inspector general, who resigned in November 1998. "If someone in the Devonshire Division [in the San Fernando Valley] is handling a personnel complaint for discourtesy and notices five prior complaints for discourtesy, that person has to drive downtown and manually search through file cabinets and boxes for the details."

Mader’s criticism echoes that of Special Counsel Merrick Bobb in a 1996 report examining the implementation of Christopher Commission recommendations. "The LAPD does not yet integrate dispersed information about officer conduct and performance," wrote Bobb, a lawyer commissioned by the city to monitor progress on LAPD reform. "Different categories, different databases, different definitions and different structures for oversight . . . preclude comprehensive analysis and systematic management . . ."

Bobb criticized the synopsis available on TEAMS as "bare-bones" and added that "a supervisor or manager wishing to learn greater details . . . will still have to make a trip downtown to review a paper file."

"Although modest piecemeal steps have been taken, the LAPD still lacks a comprehensive system and fully elaborated procedures to identify, control and manage at-risk situations and at-risk individuals and thus has not yet implemented the Christopher Commission recommendations in this regard," Bobb said of the TEAMS system in his report.

There is a precedent for the kind of system the commission envisioned, right here in Los Angeles County. The Sheriff’s Department has implemented a Personnel Performance Index system using $1 million in narcotic-forfeiture funds and another $3.5 million in department staff time. It took five years — from 1992 to 1997 — to get it designed and operating.

The PPI system tracks lawsuits, claims, uses of force, complaints and commendations, said PPI program administrator Lieutenant Janet Williams. Every time there is a data entry concerning one of the Sheriff’s Department’s 14,000 employees, the system locates all other data associated with the individual involved.

"The unit commander has access to everything that ever happens, when it happens, in his area," Williams explained. "If you have the authority, you can actually go in and read about a particular investigation."

That allows supervisors to monitor patterns, to spot trends and, ultimately, to intervene with problem officers. "You can say, ‘I want to see everyone at my bureau that has two complaints and three uses-of-force reports,’" she said.

Williams said the system has been embraced by the department brass, and has resulted in sharply reduced court penalties and awards stemming from deputy misconduct. "Since 1991, when we went into this aggressive risk-management approach, our whole [structure of] financial payouts has changed," Williams said.

But the LAPD couldn’t adapt the Sheriff’s system, said Bill Russell, commanding officer of the department’s Support Services Group, because its computers use a different language and all the LAPD data would have to be re-entered. "The existing data structures use different programs in different languages programmed at different times."

Experts say it’s true that matching separate, dated computer systems can pre sent difficult technical problems. "It’s very hard, it’s one of the main kinds of problems in data management," said Scott Parker, chair of the Data Base and Knowledge Base Field Research Project at UCLA’s computer-science department. Parker compared attempting to meld systems that are already operating to "changing out all the rivets of a 747 while it’s in the air."

He was skeptical of the LAPD’s continuing delays, however, suggesting that the department could not be trying very hard if they still have to root around in boxes. Parker called their approach "stodgy" and quipped, "They’re scared of their 747."

Officials at the Police Commission took a second stab at forcing the LAPD’s technological hand three years ago, when then–commission President Raymond Fisher recognized the current system as inadequate and began to look for funding for a bigger, better TEAMS — TEAMS II.

Fisher explained in a recent phone interview that he began discussions with the federal Department of Justice (DOJ), whose Civil Rights Division was open to supporting the development of a monitoring system that could be replicated in other cities. In January 1997, almost five years after the Christopher Commission issued its recommendations, Fisher wrote the Justice Department to request funds for a study to determine the best system for L.A.

 

At the time, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department was closing in on its own design, and there was some inclination then to see if the system could be easily adapted for the LAPD, but "the language couldn’t translate across," Fisher affirmed. "We concluded that it would make more sense to design it ourselves, since we would save little if any time translating from the Sheriff’s system."

Eight months after Fisher’s application, in August — the month Bernard Parks took over as chief — the DOJ approved a $158,000 grant under its Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) program for a study. But the final approval to cut loose the money was delayed by red tape, and by Parks’ apparent effort to put his own stamp on the project.

Captain Dan Koenig, former grant manager at the LAPD’s Management Services Division, attributes the holdup to several glitches. The DOJ had designated a company to carry out the study, he said, while the L.A. civil code requires the city to accept bids from a number of qualified companies. An exchange of paper between the city attorney and the Justice Department was necessary to inform the DOJ of the city policy and get permission to follow it.

"Each time you take a major step, they [the DOJ] have to approve it," said Koenig.

That didn’t stop Chief Parks from adding a few steps of his own. "In addition to sole-sourcing, [the original grant application included] an oversight structure that was heavy with Police Commission participation," Koenig explained. "That was unacceptable under the new regime, so we reorganized it and made it more representative of the operational side of the department."

"Operational side" means staff officers — commanders from the Employee Relations Administration, Human Resources and the Internal Affairs Division. The reorganization, in effect, skewed the composition away from civilian participation and toward LAPD sworn staff. Koenig, who was appointed by Parks to manage the grant when the new chief took office, said that the decision to rearrange the oversight committee was his.

The Police Commission is charged with policy concerns, he said, but "If you’re going to develop a system that people are going to use day-to-day, you need people from the day-to-day side. There was too much of an imbalance."

The committee changes involved "lots of folks, so it took a while to get everything squared away," according to Koenig.

Police Commissioner Gerald Chaleff took over as chair of the oversight committee in August 1997 and is the one civilian who remained a constant during the reorganization. Asked to comment on the role of the commission and the continuing delays, Chaleff described the reorganization of the committee as "an expansion" and concurred with Koenig that it made sense. "No one tried to delay [the process]; no one tried to get control of it. It’s worked out that the right people are involved," Chaleff said.

Asked if the delays indicated an institutional lack of interest, Chaleff insisted, "We’re committed to getting this done."

Funding authorization from the Department of Justice finally came through in September 1998, and in November, after putting the study out for bid, the Technology Committee of the Police Commission, also headed by Chaleff, selected the Ottawa-based Sierra Systems to carry out the research.

Sierra Systems is a name that raises eyebrows in City Hall, however, because the firm was previously retained to computerize the city employee payroll system — a process now a year behind schedule, with a $13 million cost overrun. Chaleff says that Sierra Systems has guaranteed the Police Commission that the same personnel would not be involved in the TEAMS study.

The research could take as long as six months, according to Lieutenant Charles Beck, department staff for the study.

Six months, that is, from when the study officially gets under way — a process that won’t start until the contract gets City Council approval. As of mid-June, that vote had not yet taken place. Beck said that the work is informally under way. "We’re already engaged in initial planning, getting them hooked up with the right people. Once the contract is approved, we’ve anticipated very little start-up time."

Even if the original contract goes through, the study would conclude around January 2000, a full three years after Commissioner Ray Fisher applied for Department of Justice money and nine years after the Christopher Commission recommendations came out. The LAPD and the Police Commission will still have no more than an assessment of what it takes — and what it will cost — to bring TEAMS II to L.A.

Such a system still will be years from being in place, because the LAPD will then have to find the money to build it — with the Department of Justice once again the most likely prospect.

 

Right now, however, a bill is moving through Congress that would eliminate the COPS program, and with it the most likely source of future funding for TEAMS II. "We wouldn’t want to speculate whether we’ll be awarding grants in the future," said Dan Feiffer, a DOJ spokesman. It will be weeks before the fate of the COPS program is clear, after the bill goes to the House and then to the president.

And if COPS is re-funded, "The grant application and funding process will come out very differently," Feiffer said.

There are other Justice Department sources for the LAPD, Feiffer added. But finding them and pursuing the money can only add to the length of time it will take to get TEAMS II launched. If the DOJ doesn’t fund the actual construction of the system, "I’m sure the department will seek other funding," said the LAPD’s Beck.

 

If the LAPD were to receive Justice Department funds, the grant would not be awarded until August 2001. And if it takes the five years that it took the Sheriff’s Department to build and test its system, L.A. would not have a risk-management tracking system up and functioning until 2006.

Chaleff pooh-poohs the idea that it will take so long. For one thing, he said, the state-of-the-art has advanced enough that the study could show that an off-the-shelf program could work.

But former Commissioner Fisher and the DOJ ruled that out three years ago — so wouldn’t that send the LAPD back to square one on the process?

Chaleff said he can’t draw any conclusions until he sees the study results. But he’s sure it won’t take another eight years to get the system functioning.

"I don’t think it will take that long," he insisted. "This is not something that people don’t want. People want this, and when people want something, it gets done."

Lieutenant Beck seems less confident about fixing a date by which residents can expect the LAPD to bring an officer-tracking system online. "A lot of this is tentative," said Beck. "A lot depends on what they find when they unpeel the onion."

None of which has reassured those charged with monitoring the department’s halting efforts at reform. Said Councilwoman Laura Chick, "I think I’m becoming a skeptic."


Sponsor Content