01/25/2004

IA Program Aims to Curb Officer Behavior Issues

By Karl Fischer, The Contra Costa Times

RICHMOND, Calif. -- A more accessible, proactive internal affairs unit will work longer hours to investigate public complaints against police officers and criticism of the department, acting Police Chief Charles Bennett said this week.

The freshly renamed "professional standards unit" has increased the scope of its duties and added an "early warning system" to detect problem behaviors among officers and address them through training and other non-disciplinary means.

"It makes common sense to look in advance, before gas is thrown on the fire," Bennett said. "This lets us deal with everyone the same way. Everyone knows what we expect."

The department made a presentation describing some of the changes to its patrol teams last week, and Bennett said neighborhood councils and the City Council will see the same presentation in coming weeks.

When the department receives a formal complaint about an officer, internal affairs typically conducts an investigation and forwards its results to the chief, who makes decisions about discipline. Further decisions about training and other non-disciplinary actions are largely at the discretion of supervisors and the chief.

Using the early warning system, professional standards personnel will track complaints, commendations and criticism about individual officers. If a pattern of similar complaints emerges in an officer's file, the department will use formal policies to correct behavior, even when complaints are not substantiated.

"For example, if an officer receives a number of complaints for discourtesy in a relatively short period of time, we may get him some training for his interpersonal skills," said professional standards Sgt. Jim Jenkins. "If we have an officer who crashes his car several times, we might send them back for training in that area."

The professional standards unit also will play a role in retooling department policies that do not work well and in training officers, Bennett said.

He added that complaints about officers using excessive force have declined 40 percent since September 2003, when Bennett became chief.

In past years, like many larger urban police departments, Richmond drew fire for doing little to investigate citizen complaints against officers.

More recently, the department's failure for almost a year to investigate claims of civil rights violations during a Cinco de Mayo street closure in 2002 outraged City Council members and contributed to the political furor that led to the resignation of former Police Chief Joseph Samuels Jr..

Sgt. Mike Gormley, president of the Richmond Police Officers Association, said the internal affairs changes formalize and lend consistency to practices already followed to investigate patterns of complaints.

"It's not a really big change in how we do things," Gormley said. "Nobody has expressed any concerns so far ... it's an approach that could also serve to protect officers."

Professional Standards sergeants work weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but can also accommodate people who cannot meet during those times, Jenkins said.

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