Special Report II: Ethics-Early Misconduct Detection

By Arnold, Jon | Law & Order, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Special Report II: Ethics-Early Misconduct Detection


Arnold, Jon, Law & Order


Law enforcement agencies are once again the focal point of media attention due to the current wave of outrageous conduct on the part of their personnel. The most damaging in scale is the ongoing LAPD Rampart Division scandal. The Los Angeles Police are not alone in this mess. Departments across the country are experiencing shocking occurrences of high-profile misconduct. While the vast majority of police officers are dedicated professionals who are appalled by this behavior, these disgraceful acts committed by the few are further tarnishing the image of the law enforcement profession.

Police departments throughout the nation have generally pursued a traditional approach to dealing with misconduct. Most efforts to deal with misconduct have been reactive, not proactive. Law enforcement agencies primarily use citizen and internal complaints to identify misconduct of their personnel. Corrective action, whether it is training, counseling or punitive in nature, has been normally imposed only after misconduct has occurred. Proactive approaches must be explored and expanded where some type of intervention is introduced prior to misconduct.

Early Warning Systems

Early Warning Systems (EWS) were developed as proactive tools and have been utilized by some law enforcement agencies for over a decade with beneficial results. These systems have, to a limited degree, provided a "heads up" regarding behavioral problems with police officers and afford the agency an opportunity to implement remedial action. A number of large city police departments utilize EWS including the Kansas City, MO, Police, the Atlanta, GA, Police and the Long Beach, CA, Police.

Most systems use a method that causes intervention action to be taken when an officer receives a specific number of complaints, exceeding a given threshold in a specified time frame. While this varies from agency to agency, the intervention is usually triggered when a certain number of complaints of a particular type are filed within the specified time frame.

The Huntington Beach, CA, Police utilize a version of an EWS where, upon the anniversary of each employee's hire date, the Professional Standards Unit conducts a review to determine whether the employee's complaint history reaches a listed threshold. A review is conducted if the employee has accumulated three or more complaints within the preceding 12 month period or ten or more complaints in the preceding five year period. The employee reaching either of these thresholds is constructively counseled by his supervisor, lieutenant and captain.

The counseling session involves a discussion over the nature of the complaints, specifically looking to identify patterns of behavior, and includes appropriate remedies to modify any improper behavior. The ultimate goal of the counseling session or intervention is to change the problem behavior so future misconduct can be reduced. This may not always be possible, based upon the method used or the degree of cooperation of the officer. At a minimum, the officer is placed on notice regarding the type of conduct that is inappropriate, the behavior that is expected and the potential for negative discipline should the problem behavior continue.

Research Studies

The use of citizen complaints as a measure of wrongdoing poses concerns. A national survey on investigation of complaints against officers stated the use of citizen complaints is one of the most badly abused police-- based statistics. To further support this assumption is the low percentage of complaints that are actually sustained. According to research by Lersch and Mieczkowski on allegations of misconduct filed against police officers, the reported norm for sustained complaints is ten percent or less.

The same research identified a problem prone officer as one who received four or more citizen complaints within a given time period. The researchers also found these officers were nearly twice as likely to be internally accused of avoiding duties, including charges such as tardiness, abuse of sick time, failure to appear in court and absence without leave.

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