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Can big data stop bad cops?
August 22, 2016 News


The Justice Department’s investigation of Baltimore police this month rebuked the agency for an entrenched culture of discriminatory policing. Deep within their findings, Justice investigators singled out a core failure: Baltimore’s system for identifying troubled officers was broken and existed in name only.

In Baltimore, Justice found that critical disciplinary records were excluded from its early intervention system, that police supervisors often intervened only after an officer’s behavior became egregious and that when they did, the steps they took were inadequate.

Justice highlighted the case of an unnamed officer who was criminally charged after he shot at a car as it drove toward him. When investigators looked into the officer’s background, they found that he had been involved in two prior shootings, had a history of complaints for harassment and excessive force, and had been flagged repeatedly in the early intervention system.

“The Department failed to respond to those alerts in a way that could have uncovered the officer’s condition or otherwise allowed for an intervention,” Justice reported.

The problems with Baltimore’s early intervention system are not isolated to police in that city. In numerous departments nationwide, police have failed to use early intervention systems effectively, Justice has found. Since 1994, 36 civil rights investigations by Justice discovered that local agencies had deeply flawed early intervention systems or no system in place at all, according to a review of those investigations by The Washington Post.

The Newark Police Department abandoned its early intervention system after just one year and lost track of more than 100 officers who had been flagged for monitoring, Justice found in 2014.

Justice told the Harvey Police Department in suburban Chicago to adopt a system in 2012 after its officers were accused of excessive force. The department’s system logged tardiness and grooming violations, but it failed to track lawsuits alleging misconduct or abuse, The Post found.

The New Orleans Police Department’s system was found in 2011 to be “outdated and essentially exists in name only,” Justice said. Rank-and-file officers mocked the system and considered inclusion a “badge of honor.”

Early intervention systems are supposed to collect a wide range of public and private information and use predictive modeling to determine whether officers are prone to misconduct. Once an officer is flagged, a supervisor is supposed to intervene, heading off potential problems.

Justice, which has investigated dozens of police departments nationwide for civil rights violations, considers early intervention systems critical to reforming embattled agencies. Some of the troubled police departments had early intervention systems and collected information about officers’ behavior but did nothing with the data, investigators found.

“There was nobody actually reading it, or looking at it and evaluating it, and then taking action thereafter,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “You can have a system and technology, but you actually need human beings to use the information, to act on it and to analyze it over time.”

Police accountability was thrust into the spotlight just over two years ago when a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Mo. That shooting and others led to calls for reforms nationwide. Recent fatal shootings by police in Minnesota, Louisiana and Wisconsin have reignited the debate. (In 2015, The Post began tracking all fatal shootings by on-duty police officers, an effort that continues this year.)

Many of the Justice Department’s civil rights probes into local police agencies have been prompted by allegations that police have a pattern of using excessive force against civilians. One of the areas that Justice scrutinizes is whether departments have functioning early intervention systems.

In Ferguson, for example, one of Justice’s key findings was that police records were so “incomplete and scattered” that the department was unable to implement an early intervention system. In February, Justice settled the case, ordering a broad range of reforms, including the creation of such a system.

The Justice Department began investigating Baltimore police for civil rights violations after Freddie Gray, 25, suffered a fatal spine injury in the back of a police van in April 2015. Officers who arrested Gray failed to secure him in the van, and he died several days later from his injuries. Prosecutors charged six officers in Gray’s death, but the cases ended in a mistrial, acquittals or dismissed charges.

Earlier this month , Justice said that its 14-month investigation revealed that officers in Baltimore discriminated against black residents, violated people’s civil rights with unconstitutional arrests, used excessive force and retaliated against police critics. On Aug. 10 , city leaders promised sweeping reforms in the 2,600-officer force and said that they would work with Justice officials to hammer out the details.

As part of those reforms, Baltimore police will likely be told to fix the early intervention system or create a new one, as has happened in many of the cities where Justice has intervened.

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist who has extensively studied the systems, said police departments could prevent officer misconduct if they adopted intervention systems and actively used them.

“I think a lot of them [police leaders] give lip service to it because it’s important to have one, but they don’t really use it,” Alpert said.