updated 7/23/2005 5:58:29 PM ET 2005-07-23T21:58:29

Dogged by scandal, the Los Angeles Police Department is looking beyond human judgment to technology to identify bad cops.

This month, the agency began using a $35 million computer system that tracks complaints and other telling data about officers — then alerts top supervisors to possible signs of misconduct.

The system is central to a federal oversight program ordered by the U.S. Justice Department after a wave of abuse allegations in the 1990s cast doubt on the LAPD’s ability — and willingness — to police itself.

“There definitely needs to be computerized management” of officers, said Andre Birotte, the LAPD’s inspector general. “There have been concerns with all the scandals that have gone on within the department.”

Quest to restore confidence
Community leaders hope the tracking system can help restore public confidence shaken by high-profile shootings and scandals involving the LAPD.

“I don’t think any single thing will solve problems with the Police Department. But this could go a long way toward doing it,” said the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, an activist and former pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, an influential congregation in South Los Angeles.

The system, developed by Sierra Systems Group Inc. and Bearing Point Inc., mines databases of complaints, pursuits, lawsuits, uses of force and other records to detect patterns that human eyes might miss or choose to ignore.

In the past, much of that data existed only on paper spread across various bureaus. That made it difficult to compile detailed performance profiles of officers and spot potential abusers.

Raising red flags
Now, anyone whose conduct differs sharply from their peers’ automatically gets flagged. That could mean a vice detective who fires significantly more shots than other investigators or anti-gang cops with a high number of excessive force complaints.

Safeguards have been built in to catch abuse that might be widespread within certain peer groups.

If the system pinpoints unusual conduct, it triggers an electronic message to direct supervisors, who must take a second look. The notices also travel up the command chain to a deputy chief as an extra level of oversight. Managers can access the system anywhere in the department through an internal Web site.

Depending on their conduct, some officers could be ordered to undergo more training or counseling. Follow-up investigations could lead to firing or criminal charges.

Software seen reducing complaints
Other troubled police departments, including New Orleans and Miami-Dade County, have turned to such tracking systems. New Orleans recorded a drop in citizen complaints, and Miami-Dade saw a decrease in use of force reports in the first years after systems were implemented, according to a 2001 study by the Justice Department.

The technology could face its toughest test at the LAPD — the second-largest police department in the nation with nearly 13,100 officers, jailers, dispatchers and other personnel.

Portrayed on TV as dutiful and honest in the “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” eras, the department has long struggled with allegations of brutality, even before the 1991 videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.

Tension flared again this month when police shot and killed a 19-month-old girl and her father as he clutched the girl and fired dozens of rounds at officers. Police are investigating the standoff, which left relatives and activists outraged that officers didn’t show more patience during the incident.

Union worries about errors, overcautious cops
Some rank-and-file officers fear the tracking system could mistakenly tag hardworking personnel and hurt their careers.

“How many times do you have to get triggered before they slow you down, transfer you, and you get a bad reputation?” said Gary Ingemunson, independent counsel for the union that represents LAPD officers. “The subtle message is: stay in the middle of the pack. Don’t stand out.”

Union lawyers also argue that bad cops could game the system by curbing their activities just enough to avoid being detected, while good cops might hesitate in life-and-death situations due to concerns about getting flagged.

“A lot of hesitation could get somebody killed,” Ingemunson said.

Corruption unavoidable?
Police Chief William Bratton questions whether anything can end abuse and corruption by officers.

“Nothing will eliminate it,” Bratton said earlier this year as the city announced that payouts from a corruption scandal at the Rampart Division would cost taxpayers nearly $70 million.

Claims that officers working in the rough division beat and framed innocent people resulted in scores of criminal convictions being reversed.

“As long as you have police officers, you always have the potential for corruption,” Bratton said. “As long as you have human beings, there is potential for crime.”

Others wonder whether computer algorithms can analyze something as complex as police behavior. They say no amount of number-crunching can account for stress, personal problems and psychological quirks.

“There are people who look wonderful ... and then do something out of the blue that’s totally inappropriate,” said Dr. Susan Saxe-Clifford, a psychologist who has worked with Los Angeles police. “We’re working with people, not machines.”

System recommended after ’91 King beating
Los Angeles police have little choice about using the system, first recommended in 1991 by a special commission formed after the King beating that found major lapses in the agency’s efforts to roust problem officers.

Critics lobbied for the system over the years but met resistance from the department and City Hall. Federal funds set aside for the program went unspent.

Meanwhile, accusations of abuse persisted. Last year, the department fielded nearly 6,500 complaints ranging from excessive force to racial profiling. About 14 percent have been sustained, with 1,400 still under investigation.

By comparison, there were 5,212 complaints in 1999, with 36 percent upheld after nearly all the investigations were completed.

The LAPD said it has made progress in countering abuse. Under the 2001 federal consent decree, it beefed up its internal investigations and established an ethics enforcement section that runs sting operations on suspected corrupt officers.

Department brass have tried to ease fears of the computer system, saying most of the cops spotlighted won’t face consequences. Many could even receive commendations if the system shows them doing exemplary work.

What’s more, the computer doesn’t make a final decision but only gives a statistical overview for superiors to inspect, said Deputy Chief David Doan, who heads the bureau installing the system.

“A human being will analyze that and will be making that judgment,” he said.

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