Can big data stop bad cops?
By Kimbriell Kelly
Aug 21 2016
Fatal force: This article is part of an ongoing examination by The Washington Post of fatal shootings by police. In 2015, The Post began tracking cases nationwide and compiled a database of all fatal shootings by officers in the line of duty. The project has expanded this year to include details about the officers involved. View the 2016 database here: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/>
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.)