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Listen and Learn, Sheriff

February 20, 2003

As few as 2% of police officers are responsible for 50% of all citizen complaints. Armed with this research, civil rights activists and bean counters hoping to fend off lawsuits began pushing police departments to adopt early-warning systems to identify those problem officers. Today the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department holds itself up as a model of this effort. Its state-of-the-art computer program tracks citizen complaints, use-of-force incidents, lawsuits, discipline and commendations.

At least that's what it's designed to do. But now an analysis by Merrick Bobb, who monitors the Sheriff's Department as a special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors, points out what anyone intimidated by a new Palm handheld already knows: Even the best of databases is only as good as the people who collect, interpret, enter and use the information.

Bobb's report found that the department failed to tap the system's potential -- from department heads who disagree over what information to collect to clerks who are months behind on entering data and captains who don't know how to use what's there.

At Tuesday's supervisors meeting, Sheriff Lee Baca called Bobb's report "oversimplified hyperbole" and restated his own commitment to accountability. The sheriff need not be so defensive. What few studies have been done on early-warning systems point out that they are high-maintenance programs that require ongoing attention. What's important is that the glitches be identified -- and fixed. The problems outlined in Bobb's report could be solved by, among other things, enforcing deadlines, issuing detailed, written guidelines and filling budgeted but vacant positions.

Bobb's report should serve as a guide for Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton as well. The federal government ordered the Police Department to set up a similar system after the LAPD failed to detect signs of renegade cops before the Rampart corruption scandal.

Experience shows that early-warning systems can be effective at reducing problematic behavior, but they are only one tool for addressing police misconduct. A computer program, however fancy, won't work without a department culture that stresses accountability. In a police culture that too often stresses a code of silence, Baca has been remarkably open to civilian oversight. This most recent report, however grudgingly accepted, confirms why such oversight is needed.

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