Policing the police: How the system works


Staff writer

Two King County Sheriff deputies and a Des Moines Police officer, all working on an interagency drug task force created to fight street crime, pleaded not guilty to fourth-degree assault and unlawful imprisonment charges at an arraignment hearing Nov. 24.

Deputies James Keller and George Alvarez and officer Barron Todd Baldwin are accused of pepper-spraying and beating a drug informant, then driving him to the Green River and threatening to kill him and dump his body. The officers are scheduled to appear in court for a case-setting hearing Dec. 8.

Fourth-degree assault is a gross misdemeanor, and unlawful imprisonment is a felony. If the three are convicted, none will be able to work in law enforcement again, at least not in Washington. State law prohibits felons from carrying firearms.

While the three officers haven’t been convicted of a crime, the incident calls into question how police departments identify problem officers and deal with them before they abuse the power entrusted to them.

According to a 2001 study by criminal justice experts Samuel Walker, Geoffrey Alpert and Dennis Kenney, published by the National Institute of Justice, departments can avoid potential abuses by creating early warning systems.

Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska, said the issue of problem officers is pervasive. “It’s universal,” he said. “It’s true of every organization.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights first suggested the creation of early detection systems in 1981, but by 1999, only 39 percent of law enforcement agencies serving populations greater than 50,000 nationwide had such a system in place, according to the study.

The Federal Way Police Department adopted its early-warning system as part of its effort to become a nationally accredited agency. As part of the system, administrators collect and compare the numbers of department standards violations, use-of-force reports, weapons discharges, pursuits and sick leave to find officers with a disproportionate number of incidents.

If the data identifies an officer with out-of-the-ordinary behavior patterns, chief Anne Kirkpatrick will call the officer into her office to find out informally what’s going on. Since the department adopted the early-warning system, administrators have identified and counselled potentially problematic officers.

In most police departments, citizen complaints against officers are dealt with by sergeants or immediate supervisors.

In Federal Way, a first-level supervisor determines whether the complaint should be sent up the chain of command or whether it can be handled by a lieutenant. “There are clear guidelines,” Kirkpatrick said.

Des Moines Police officer Robert Hollis said that city’s department keeps track of complaints against officers, whether made over the telephone or in a public log kept at the front desk, to determine if particular officers are getting a disproportionate number of them.

Citizen complaints sometimes can be used to gauge whether an officer has abused his or her power over time, though Hollis said there weren’t any prior complaints against Baldwin, the officer arrested and charged with beating the informant.

In the Des Moines department, complaints are generally screened by a sergeant, who determines if the problem is something he or she can handle alone or if it should be forwarded, Hollis said.

The department has policies and procedures in place governing how complaints are handled based on the number of complaints against an officer in a given time period or the nature of the complaints.

Discipline for indiscretions or officer misconduct can range from a verbal warning to termination. Officers have the right to appeal.

Citizen complaints are handled in much the same way at the King County Sheriff Department, according to spokesman John Urquhart.

If it’s something minor (one of the most common complaints is officers speeding in their patrol cars), depending on who the officer is and how many complaints he has, the sergeant might give the officer a verbal warning or put a note in his or her file, Urquhart said.

The sergeant has the discretion to decide how serious the complaint is and where it should go. Sometimes, the complainant is not credible. “Other times, you know it’s a one-time thing,” Urquhart said.

If someone calls and says an officer beat him up, the sergeant would meet with the person, tape a statement, take pictures of any injuries and write down what happened, Urquhart said. The information would then be sent to internal investigations.

People also can call internal investigations directly, he said.

Depending on the violation, the internal investigations division could forward the complaint to the division that would investigate the type of crime, like check fraud, for example, or homicide.

“We can track all the complaints, even if they’re not sustained,” Urquhart said.

Sergeants aren’t allowed to dig around in deputies’ files, but the sheriff can go in and ask to see all the complaints against a particular officer, Urquhart said.

Neither Keller nor Alvarez, the deputies accused in the case involving the alleged drug-informant assault, had any sustained violations in his file, according to Urquhart.

The Sheriff Department doesn’t release the number or frequency of unsustained complaints against officers. Every year, all the unsustained complaints are purged from the officers’ files.

Federal Way Police Guild president Jim Lindsay said attentive first-line supervision is the best way for departments to spot potential problem officers.

Sometimes accidents happen or an officer makes a mistake, he said, but if an officer is having multiple problems in a short time period, a good first-line supervisor is going to notice and take action to correct the problem.

Some citizen groups have said it’s not fair for police officers to handle the complaints against their own colleagues, and some have demanded the formation of citizens oversight panels to review complaints against police.

“A system for police accountability is important because the public needs to have trust in the police. If it’s just the police investigating the police, it doesn’t engender that trust,” said Doug Honig, spokesman for the Seattle chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has written reports and advocated for greater oversight for civilians in the process, he added.

Lindsay agreed the perception of unfairness is there and conceded it’s probably happened in the past that a supervisor hasn’t punished an officer for inappropriate conduct. But a majority of the supervisors act with integrity and want to make sure problems aren’t cropping up, he said.

Creating a citizen oversight panel, however, is more difficult than plugging people onto a review board, Lindsay said.

The Federal Way Police Guild has an interest in officer discipline, and the role and authority of the review board would have to be bargained, especially if the board’s findings could be used against an officer for pay or promotions later.

Honig said it’s never easy for departments to adopt change, but added the formation of review and advisory boards is already happening in the Puget Sound area, particularly with the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability and Tacoma’s recent consideration of forming a board following the murder-suicide by that city’s police chief, David Brame.

“The movement in this area has been toward recognizing there needs to be more civilian input,” Honig said. “Police need people to trust them.”

According to Walker’s study, it isn’t difficult to create an early-detection system to identify a problem officer. Indicators could be citizen complaints, frequency of firearm use, use-of-force reports, civil litigation against an officer, resisting arrest incidents, high speed pursuits and vehicle damage.

Walker said even sick leave can be an indicator of a problem officer. Sick leave can be a sign of trouble in the officer’s personal life, he said, especially if the officer is calling in sick on Mondays or taking single days off at a time.

At the Federal Way department, once an officer is identified by the early-warning system, police administrators informally question him or her to try to find out what’s going on.

“If there isn’t a reason, we tell them we don’t want to see it again. If there is a reason, get it fixed, because next time, it’s going to be formal. We correct things before they become abuses or problems,” Kirkpatrick said. “Also, maybe there’s a legitimate reason. Maybe there’s an explanation. The early warning system tells us a lot.”

Sometimes officer-conduct problems stem from a simple lack of training.

For example, Walker said, an officer who pulls over a vehicle with three male occupants who all get out of the car and begin approaching him might resort to force if he starts to lose control of the situation. A simple refresher course in how to control a scene might help that officer keep his cool, he said.

In another real-life example, an officer with significantly larger number of use-of-force incidents than her co-workers was afraid of getting hit in the face, Walker said. Additional training on how to go into a confrontation helped her feel more confident, he said.

Lindsay agreed. “If someone is overly aggressive, they might be compensating for another weakness,” he said. “Training can take care of that.”

Besides identifying officers who are using force or behaving inappropriately, a complete data base of officer performance can shed light on other problems. For example, when a police department in Arizona created their performance database, they discovered some of their officers never made any arrests at all, Walker said.

Performance data bases can also show if officers are stopping an inordinate number of female drivers, or if some officers are stopping more ethnic minority drivers than are other officers working the same beat, he said.

The preventive nature of the early-warning systems are effective for stemming problems before they happen. “We think for a lot of officers, all they need is a wakeup call,” Walker said.

Kirkpatrick said she holds her department to a high standard of police accountability. When an officer who no longer works with the department made a bad arrest, she said, she and a sergeant and the officer went to the family to apologize. “If an officer is inappropriate, they are dealt with here,” she said.

That doesn’t happen often, though, she said. Usually, potentially problematic officers are identified with the early-warning system.

“Departments can be really healthy,” she said. “It depends on if you’re doing maintenance all along. You just have to be kind of mindful. With mentoring, coaching and training, you really can be a healthy department.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565,

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