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SDPD has pledged to overhaul its system for identifying problem cops. But we’re just going to have to trust that they’ll get it right this time.
Last month, a federal jury found that San Diego police officer Ariel Savage did a bad thing.
In June 2011, Savage and another officer violated a man’s Fourth Amendment rights by falsely arresting him during a dispute in the Gaslamp, the jury in a civil lawsuit against Savage found. The jury’s decision was only the latest in a pattern that has followed Savage throughout his decade-long career as a San Diego police officer.
Two years ago, a federal judge in a separate case concluded that Savage violated the Fourth Amendment rights of two people during a 2010 traffic stop gone wrong in City Heights. The city later settled that case for $450,000. And Savage has faced at least one other formal complaint of wrongful arrest during his time as a San Diego cop.
All these incidents should be major red flags for SDPD, said Carol Archbold, a criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University and an expert in police accountability. Savage should be on the department’s radar, she said.
“He has presented a patterned behavior that has resulted in negative consequences for him, his agency and members of the public,” Archbold said.
The good news is that SDPD has a program to identify and monitor officers, like Savage, who’ve shown signs of trouble. The bad news is the program doesn’t work.
In the recent U.S. Justice Department review of the department, investigators said SDPD’s system for detecting and tracking problem officers needed major upgrades. It didn’t incorporate officers’ negative performance reviews or civil litigation filed against them. It didn’t say that supervisors needed to actually check their subordinate’s records. And even if supervisors did review their officers’ histories, the system didn’t require any follow up with problem officers or supervisors to document meetings about officer behavior. Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman agreed with the DOJ’s findings, saying that SDPD’s system was “in need of a complete overhaul.”
“We intend to completely revamp our entire system,” Zimmerman said at a City Council committee hearing in May.
This hole in the department’s ability to monitor problem officers is one of SDPD’s biggest challenges as it attempts to recover from an officer misconduct scandal that’s plagued the police in recent years. Department brass and city leaders have blamed the issues on a handful of rogue cops. But the numerous cases of bad behavior also revealed lax supervision and a willful blindness to problems. The ultimate success of this early warning system could determine how well SDPD will root out troubled officers.
The best way for police departments to hold individual officers accountable for their bad actions is to develop a system to figure out which officers are having problems. This is a conclusion in the DOJ’s report on San Diego police.
The system requires a centralized database for the department to track officer performance, identify those whose behaviors raise concern and intervene with counseling, training or more severe measures when warranted. The system would examine indicators like officer’s use of force, vehicle collisions and citizen complaints.
Ideally, said Archbold, whose book on police accountability was cited throughout the DOJ report, troubled officers are identified before their behavior results in lawsuits against the department.
SDPD’s system has had a lengthy and unfortunate history. The department won a $450,000 federal grant to create the program in 2003. It took five years to develop the system. Even then, it didn’t seem like it was a priority. We talked about the program with Garry Collins, who headed the department’s Medical Assistance Unit in 2011 as the misconduct scandal first raged:
The project was spearheaded by the former head of internal affairs, tossed around the department when she retired and recently landed on Collins’ desk.
“It’s one of those things that probably isn’t being as utilized as it should be, but I’m confident with everything that’s going on that it will be,” Collins said.
Part of the reforms offered by then-Chief William Lansdowne in the response to the initial spate of officer misconduct was to beef up the early intervention system. He trusted the oversight of that system to one of his then-top deputies: Zimmerman. But, based on the DOJ’s criticisms, Lansdowne’s actions didn’t work.
Zimmerman replaced Lansdowne as chief in February 2014 during the misconduct scandal’s second wave. Julia Yoo, an attorney who sued the department based on one of the incidents involving Savage, said she hasn’t seen the new chief make major changes to how SDPD handles problem officers.
“I don’t want to be unfair to her,” Yoo said. “Perhaps she hasn’t been in there long enough to make the systemic changes the department needs.”
In the May Council committee hearing, Zimmerman pledged to make the all the changes the DOJ recommended. She said the department is going to bring in Timothy Longo, the police chief of Charlottesville, Va. to advise on reforms. Zimmerman described Longo as an expert in early intervention systems.
But Zimmerman also said redesigning the system was going to take time and money. The department’s computers, for instance, have to be able to communicate with one another so that supervisors could be flagged to potential problem officers.
Even then, for the most part, we’re going to have to trust that the department gets the system right. Officer discipline histories are shielded from public view and not accessible via the state’s open records laws. The only reason we know anything about Savage’s complaint history is through the lawsuits filed against him.
And those lawsuits don’t provide a complete picture, either. We don’t know the result of the third wrongful arrest complaint filed against Savage. That information isn’t disclosed even through discovery in court proceedings.
Archbold, the police accountability expert, said the concealment of officer discipline histories — whether it’s required by state law, agreed to in collective bargaining with police unions or through some other means — is a major concern.
“This type of agreement makes it very difficult, and in some cases impossible, for police officers to be held accountable for their actions,” Archbold said. “Transparency is an important part of police accountability.”
The department sometimes does release officer discipline information in court – if it makes the officer look good.
In the lawsuit alleging Savage violated an arrestee’s Fourth Amendment rights in the Gaslamp, the city argued in court filings that it had fully examined the case, and provided evidence that otherwise wouldn’t be available. An internal affairs investigation cleared Savage. The city’s Citizens Review Board on Police Practices then looked at the situation and agreed with the department.
Those internal inquiries would have been the final word on the case had the lawsuit not been filed. Instead, a federal jury found that the incident wasn’t as innocent as the department had said.