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System to track police conduct

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore police officials are designing a powerful computer database that will monitor the performance of the city's 3,200 officers in areas such as arrests, car stops and citizens' complaints, and identify those who might be headed for trouble.

Although the system is in the early stages of development, it is drawing sharp criticism from police union officials, who worry it will inhibit officers and cause them to be less aggressive, or, in other cases, prompt them to aim for perceived quotas for arrests.

Police officials say the database will ultimately help officers by finding those who would benefit from counseling before they commit serious offenses that require strict discipline. Many of the 50 police officers who were fired or forced to resign in the last two years had histories of such complaints, officials said.

The computer system - along with an aggressive training regimen that has been implemented - will help "change the culture of the police department," said Sean R. Malone, chief of the agency's professional standards division.

"Once this system comes on board, it will enable commanders to [better] determine whether officers on the beat need more assistance or whether they are not performing in areas we need them to perform," said Malone, who is in charge of designing the system.

While monitoring complaints against officers is nothing new, officials say the enhanced system will be better integrated with other databases and be far more sophisticated.

For example, Malone said, the program will track officers' arrests, car stops, accidents, missed court dates, sick leave and citizen complaints, and will compare officers who are doing similar jobs. He declined to say how much the system would cost but said he was seeking grants to help finance its implementation.

The database would note when officers' performances fall outside the normal parameters. Even then, Malone said, the data will not be used to punish officers; it will just alert commanders when to start asking questions.

But in some of their strongest criticism of the current police administration, union officials said the system will slow the progress police have been making in reducing crime.

Gary McLhinney, president of the city's police union, says officers will be less aggressive because they'll be trying to avoid complaints, which would be more accessible to commanders in the new database.

McLhinney, who has discussed the proposed system with high-ranking police officials, also suggested that criminals could manipulate the proposed system. For instance, McLhinney said, drug dealers might start filing complaint after complaint against good police officers to remove them from their posts.

"It's going to cause highly aggressive police officers to not do their jobs," McLhinney said.

"I don't think a computer database is the right way to do this," McLhinney added. "We have supervisors. We have a structured command staff. It's the jobs of the sergeants, lieutenants and majors to supervise. If they are not doing their jobs, replace them. Do not use a time-consuming and expensive computer system that is just going to put numbers on paper."

Another potential danger, McLhinney said, is that officers will sense what the computer database considers an ideal performance and try to meet those statistics rather than use their best judgment.

"You're not going to want to get flagged by Big Brother," McLhinney said. "Eventually, you are going to know what numbers are not going to get you flagged."

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris could not be reached for comment. Malone says that Norris is "100 percent" behind the creation of the system.

Similar databases have been established at dozens of metropolitan police departments across the country, though they vary greatly in scope. In the Baltimore area, police departments track complaints against officers, but those systems are not nearly as extensive or sophisticated as the one being proposed.

Those who have studied such monitoring systems say they work, when used correctly.

"Any organization's management should know what its employees are doing," said Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a co-author of a 2001 National Institute of Justice study of such systems. "Management needs some basic data on the performance of employees, and that is especially critical in the police area where officers have special powers."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said that it supports the computer monitoring system because it will help commanders keep better track of problem employees.

"It's a very important way to ensure that police officers are performing their jobs in an appropriate manner," said David Rocah, an ACLU lawyer who specializes in police issues.

City police officials said they would like to have a system working within a year, although it could take longer, depending on how difficult it will be to merge existing databases. For example, the department has been working unsuccessfully for years to retrieve real-time arrest data from state officials who run the Central Booking and Intake Center.

The program's development comes as the total number of citizen complaints against officers appears to be dropping. In the first eight months of the year, complaints of officers being discourteous or using excessive force dropped 22 percent from the same period in 2001 - from 546 complaints to 428.

Even without the new database, city police officials are moving ahead to identify officers who generate high numbers of complaints. In July, city police used an internal affairs database to single out officers who had been named in large numbers of complaints. Those officers will go through a program designed to teach them more effective techniques in dealing with the public.

Police officials identified 77 officers who generated at least three complaints in the past 18 months for being discourteous to the public or using excessive force. Among that group, they averaged seven complaints, Malone said.

Most of the complaints have been determined to be unfounded and others are still pending, Malone said, and the training program is not designed as punishment.

In late October, an initial group, about two dozen, of those officers will begin a nine-day training course. It will include speeches by Norris and Mayor Martin O'Malley; classroom work on how to handle stress; better techniques to handle arrests and verbal confrontations; and a visit to a facility for troubled youth to "put a story behind" the teen-agers officers deal with every day, Malone said.

Upon completion of the training course, officers will be closely supervised by their superiors, who will submit detailed reports on the officers' progress. Officers will be able to use the training as mitigation in any disciplinary hearings.

"This will enable us to identify officers who are having problems before disciplinary action is necessary," Malone said.

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