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July 02, 2007
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"Officer stress detection" reviewed by Fla. agency heads

By Valerie Kalfrin
Tampa Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — Because stress manifests itself in different ways, Tampa police Capt. Jill Ramsten wants to focus on the small details to get a picture of officers' well-being.

Ramsten heads the Internal Affairs Bureau, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct. It also maintains the department's Early Intervention Program, which originated in the 1990s to identify officers with personal problems or aggression issues.

Each week, her computer automatically culls information about officers' behavior from seven criteria and flags those who should meet with a supervisor.

Those criteria might need an adjustment, said Ramsten, who took over Internal Affairs last year and wonders whether some colleagues are falling through the cracks.

Last year, the program triggered 166 meetings with supervisors, called interventions, in which supervisors determined whether officers had violated policy, needed training or should be referred for counseling. These involved 110 officers, or about 12 percent of the police force, records show.

The most serious criterion in the program is an officer's use of force -- but not all officers flagged for use of force are problematic, department records show.

Any officer who uses force ranging from physical blows to discharging a Taser or a firearm at least four times within 90 days receives an intervention.

Last year, two officers, Jesse Madsen and Alexander Thiel, received the most interventions for use of force -- eight and five, respectively. Memos from their interventions show supervisors found their uses of force appropriate. The force ranged from putting their hands on an arrestee to using a Taser or unholstering their weapons.

These officers received a high number of interventions because each makes three times the arrests of a typical officer, the department said. An average officer makes about 100 arrests per year; these officers each made at least 300, records show.

To get a fuller picture of someone in crisis, Ramsten wants to combine the less-serious categories in the database. Under this idea, any officer exhibiting three of these within 90 days would receive an intervention: a formal Internal Affairs complaint, discipline at the district level, a service-related inquiry, and failing to appear in court or at an extra-duty security job.

This way the system would flag a person who, say, sassed a civilian, missed court and banged up the patrol car, all within three months. The theory is that a troubled person will show a pattern of behavior across different areas of their lives. "You're not always going to fall into the same issue time and time again," Ramsten said.

This concept is being tested to see how well it works in the department's database. Any changes to the program must be approved by Police Chief Stephen Hogue and his executive staff, but the police union and others are optimistic about the proposed changes.

"We're always open to anything to streamline the process and make it more realistic," said Kevin Durkin, president of the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union representing Tampa police.

"To keep tweaking it and making it up-to-date are critical," said Tampa police Capt. John Newman, who helped modify the program from its early stages and lectures nationwide about the program at conferences of the National Internal Affairs Association. "You have to constantly go back and make sure it's capturing the information you need."

Officers in general are resistant to the program because they "feel like they're being scrutinized," Ramsten said.

One issue officers have is the program tends to flag those who make a high number of arrests alongside those who need counseling, Durkin said.

That is a common flaw with these programs nationwide, Newman said, noting it's a challenge to frame the criteria around each officer's assignment.

"If you have a detective working larceny and checks, you're doing a lot of research and not having the same contact with the public that a patrol officer is, but that doesn't mean you're not having problems, such as a bad divorce," he said.

The program is designed to address problems before they become career-damaging and before an officer becomes a danger to the public, Ramsten said. If in the process it flags those whose work is fine, they should be congratulated, she said.

"It gives you the opportunity to address the good they're doing or to look a little closer if there's a problem," Ramsten said. "Some officers view this as criticism of their jobs. It's not. It's a management tool to ensure that we're doing a good job, that our policies and procedures are being followed."

Copyright 2007 Tampa Tribune

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