Fix early warning for cops

A good early-warning system can prevent police violence and abuse

EDITORIAL The San Francisco Police Commission has finally approved a long-overdue plan to monitor problem cops — but the Police Officers Association managed to get it watered down to the point where it won't be terribly effective. The whole sorry episode was an example of how the POA has been running roughshod over the Police Department and undermining even basic disciplinary procedures.

The commission has been talking about this for four years now, ever since the American Civil Liberties Union and the Controller's Office released scathing reports outlining the city's failure to monitor problem officers and identify cops who were prone to violent behavior.

The idea is simple (and it's worked successfully in plenty of other cities): there are well-established patterns of behavior and performance signals that tend to be associated with police officers likely to get into trouble. The San Francisco system will track uses of force, citizen complaints, police-abuse lawsuits, officer-involved shootings, on-duty accidents, and vehicle pursuits and allow the department to do early intervention with any officer who seems to be developing violent or reckless behavior.

But that ignores two other key indicators — cases in which criminal charges are dismissed because of officer misconduct and cases in which the cops charge citizens with resisting arrest. If an officer is involved in an unusually large number of these sorts of cases, it's a clear sign of potential trouble, Samuel Walker, a criminologist who's a national expert on early-intervention systems, told the commission.

The POA, however, helped write the plan — and refused to allow those criteria to be included. The union also made sure that the tracking system can't be used in considering whether an officer is promoted, disciplined, or allowed to train other cops. In other words, the Police Department can't use its own data for what would seem to be standard management practices. In fact, POA officials threatened to sue the city if the commission made any effort to tighten the tracking program.

The system is hardly punitive to the cops. The first two times it triggers a red flag, the officer's supervisor can use the information for closer monitoring — or can simply review the findings and determine there isn't a real problem. Only after a third warning sign does the officer have to undergo counseling.

A good early-warning system can prevent police violence and abuse, and by weeding out problem officers before they do something that leads to a major lawsuit, it can save the city a lot of money. But the real point here is that the commission and the chief — not the police union — should be making decisions about management policy.

This program won't go into effect until the end of the year; there's still plenty of time for the commission to send it back for amendments without buckling to the demands of a rogue police union that has already done tremendous damage to the department's reputation. Commissioner David Campos, to his credit, was the lone vote against it; the other members of the panel should follow his lead.*