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April 22, 2006
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S.F. plan to track police criticized

Susan Sward, Chronicle Staff Writer

Copyright 2006 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
All Rights Reserved 

Two months after Mayor Gavin Newsom vowed to "ride roughshod" over the San Francisco Police Department to get a tracking system capable of identifying problem officers, the department has produced a draft plan that experts in police practices and some local officials say is flawed.

The department's initial plan for an early-intervention system, developed after a Chronicle series on the department's failure to adequately track and correct officers who frequently use force on suspects, is flawed in two major ways, the experts said.

First, some behaviors the experts say can identify officers who are trouble on the streets -- resisting-arrest charges that can cover up excessive use of force, and criminal cases dismissed because of officer conduct -- get no attention in San Francisco's plan, which was presented to the Police Commission this month.

Second, the department proposes to have the Police Officers Association -- which represents most officers on the 2,100-member force -- participate in decisions about officers whose behavior indicates possible problems.

"It seems as if the SFPD still somewhat has its head in the sand," said Merrick Bobb, one of the nation's top experts on police discipline. Bobb, who reviewed the proposal at The Chronicle's request, said it "falls short of best practice" as defined by the U.S. Justice Department.

"It is weaker than similar early-warning systems presently in place in Los Angeles County, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Miami-Dade and elsewhere, and it lacks the teeth necessary to responsibly manage the risk of police misconduct," said Bobb, president of the Police Assessment Resource Center in Los Angeles, which consults with departments nationwide.

The department's work to create what it calls an early-intervention system is important. Newsom has said a revamped tracking plan will be a key step toward the major reforms he wants in the controversy-plagued department.

In addition, experts say tracking systems, when they include enough indicators of potentially problematic behavior, can be a key force for reform by identifying problem officers and changing their behavior or getting them off the streets.

The department's draft proposes to track 10 indicators: use of force, officer-involved shootings and discharges, legal claims and lawsuits against officers, citizen complaints, department complaints and workplace-discrimination complaints, on-duty accidents and vehicle pursuits.

Perhaps the draft's most controversial provision would place a representative from the Police Officers Association on a six-member police panel evaluating cases of officers whose repeated use of force or other problematic behavior cause them to hit the review threshold.

To critics, this is the consummate fox-guarding-the-henhouse maneuver. Supporters of the proposal say inclusion of the union representative is a way of getting rank-and-file officers to buy into the tracking system.

Samuel Walker, one of the country's foremost experts on such tracking systems, said putting an association representative on the panel "is absolutely wrong." He said the union "should not be given a voice or veto in what should be a management decision."

Inclusion of the police union on the board also drew criticism from the city's Office of Citizen Complaints and the American Civil Liberties Union's monitor of police practices in San Francisco.

"The role of a POA representative is diametrically opposed to the goals of the early-warning system: POA representatives are specifically hired to defend and mitigate officer misconduct -- not to detect it early on and prevent its reoccurrence and/or escalation," Samara Marion, a lawyer for the Office of Citizen Complaints, stated in a letter to the department.

Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director for the ACLU-Northern California, said "putting the POA on the panel is of concern because it defers to the association on what should be solely a management function."

Newsom, who was backed by the association when he ran for mayor, referred questions about the group's proposed role in the tracking system to Allen Nance, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.

"We want to make sure the rights of peace officers are being upheld and that they have union representation in that process," Nance said. "One of the best ways to do that is to have them at the table."

One expert on police practices took a similar stand. D.P. Van Blaricom, a former Bellevue, Wash., police chief, said he didn't think the union representative would have undue influence, and he thought it was wise to include the group because otherwise "they'll be outside throwing rocks."

Deputy Police Chief Antonio Perra said the proposed role of the police association "has been floated up there for discussion. This is a discussion draft -- we're working to address everyone's concerns."

At a recent meeting, members of the Police Commission sharply questioned several other aspects of the department's plan, starting with its opening sentence.

Rules on the department's rudimentary tracking system, which now looks only at citizen complaints against officers, currently start with this opening statement: "It is the policy of the San Francisco Police Department that misconduct complaints will be taken seriously."

In the draft, the new opening line states: "The San Francisco Police Department's members are its greatest asset." Department officials said they wanted the policy statement to be more positive.

Commissioner Petra DeJesus told department officials that she saw nothing wrong with stressing that citizen complaints would be given close attention. "I think we need to make a strong statement to the community that we do take this seriously," she said.

DeJesus added that putting a Police Officers Association representative on the committee overseeing the tracking system "gives the appearance of a conflict."

The draft also did not include several possible indicators of problematic officer behavior that the ACLU's Schlosberg said Police Chief Heather Fong agreed to include during talks a year earlier.

Fong was not available to comment, and Perra said he was unaware of the specifics of any agreement that might have been reached previously.

Schlosberg said indicators Fong had previously agreed would be in the early-intervention system included criminal cases dismissed because of an officer's conduct, emergency time off, and charges of resisting arrest or obstructing or assaulting an officer.

Schlosberg said cases dropped because of an officer's conduct sometimes involve possible violations of constitutional rights. He added that emergency time off, if taken often enough, could be an indication of personal problems, and he said the overuse of resisting-arrest and obstructing-an-officer charges could reflect an officer's use-of-force problem.

Commissioner David Campos echoed some of Schlosberg's concerns, telling the department: "You have a document that, to my mind, tries to reduce the number of triggers and reduce the potential number of problems that could be identified, and it's a disservice" to San Francisco police.

The fight over the system is occurring three years after reports by the ACLU and the city's controller's office called for the department to strengthen its tracking system to mirror more comprehensive approaches urged by the U.S. Department of Justice and adopted by many departments across the country.

It also comes two months after The Chronicle began a series on police use of force, which detailed how the department's outdated tracking system undercut its ability to identify conduct of problem officers and intervene to halt it.

The series disclosed that 100 officers were responsible for one-quarter of the department's reported use of force and revealed that the department left many of these officers on the streets despite their propensity to use force far more often than their peers.

Commissioner Joe Marshall said the new system must have "a lot of teeth, especially in light of The Chronicle."

Noting the 100 officers who The Chronicle said frequently use force, Marshall added: "The community has got to feel this document is going to catch these folks, that they'll be weeded out, dealt with. You've got to do that."

Department representatives told the commission that they would keep working to produce a system that the Police Commission will be willing to adopt.

A call by The Chronicle seeking comment from Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes was not returned.

In a previous interview, Delagnes said he supported the approach of an early-intervention system. But he stressed that his organization opposes the existing system's counting complaints that have not been substantiated as an indicator of possible problem behavior. He also said he was opposed to using as an indicator any resisting-arrest cases because in high-crime areas, officers inevitably make many such arrests.

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Police Department's draft plan

What the Department proposes to track

Use of force: Experts say this may indicate that an officer resorts to force too readily or inappropriately. With this indicator and all others, experts say one or more incidents don't necessarily indicate misconduct, but patterns of conduct must be looked at to address potential problems early on.

Officer-involved shootings: Experts say all police shootings must be reviewed, partly to determine whether deadly force was used appropriately in the situation.

Officer-involved discharges: Experts say these gunshots that miss their targets must be reviewed, partly to determine whether force was used appropriately in the situation.

Citizen complaints: Experts say these complaints may demonstrate an officer deals with the public inappropriately.

Management Control Division (internal affairs) complaints: Experts say these complaints may indicate an officer has potential performance problems.

Equal employment opportunity complaints: Experts say these complaints may indicate an officer needs to improve his or her conduct concerning racial, sexual, disability, sexual-orientation or gender issues.

Civil suits and legal claims: Experts say these could indicate an officer's inappropriate action.

On-duty accidents and vehicle pursuits: Experts say these may indicate a lack of judgment or unnecessary risk-taking on an officer's part.

What others say should also be tracked

Cases dropped due to officer conduct: Cases are sometimes dropped when an officer is found to have violated a citizen's constitutional rights, and experts say this sort of conduct should be tracked.

Emergency time off: Some police practices experts say that time off, if taken repeatedly, could be a sign that an officer is having personal problems and needs counseling.

Resisting arrest or obstructing an officer charges: Many police tracking systems include this as an indicator because such charges repeatedly against suspects could be an officer's way of covering up excessive force used on a suspect. 
 
April 21, 2006

Full story: S.F. plan to track police criticized






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