For nearly a decade, the San Francisco Police Department has monitored the more than 2,200 officers in its ranks as a prophylactic specifically against the kind of serious misconduct that has plagued the department in recent years, from a racist text scandal to the fatal shooting of Mario Woods in December.
Last year, for instance, 384 officers were flagged by the department for risky or troubling behavior, according to SFPD’s Early Intervention System. But only six of those officers were deemed in need of intervention.
Interventions can be anything from retraining and close observation of an officer to a performance plan and transfers.
The low number of interventions has commissioners and police watchdogs wondering whether the system is working at all. This is especially important now that city and state leaders are pushing for reforms around use of force and accountability.
“I am concerned about whether it’s really working or not,” said San Francisco Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus about the paltry number of officers flagged and then intervened on by EIS.
“It raises a red flag to me,” she said.
A BROKEN SYSTEM
The system’s apparent failings seemingly raise questions about the existing accountability mechanisms and cast doubt on the efficacy of the slew of reforms coming down the line.
John Crew, a former ACLU lawyer and police watchdog, asked why anyone would trust policy recommendations from a federal review of police practices or the use-of-force reforms being hashed out at the behest of Mayor Ed Lee when the existing tools, like the EIS, appear so flawed.
The Early Intervention System, much touted by Chief Greg Suhr as a tool to weed out bad behavior, tracks incidents from lawsuits and shootings to use of force, vehicle pursuits and complaints.
If an officer is involved in a certain number of incidents in a certain period — three use-of-force incidents in three months, for instance — they are flagged by the system.
Commanding officers then review the case and decide if there is a pattern of behavior in need of an intervention. If that’s the case, officers are retrained, counseled and in some case monitored. None of these details are filed in an officer’s records, as the system is not meant to lead to discipline. The names of officers are rarely released to the public, even in cases of misconduct that go beyond the EIS.
However, changes to the EIS system are now part of the larger, use-of-force reforms. In a Feb. 19 letter from the Police Commission to the mayor, the commission said it plans to “expand the Early Intervention System (EIS) to identify and intervene immediately when an officer develops behaviors which are indicators of questionable practices.”
WILL REFORMS HELP?
The ACLU pointed out in its own letter to the commission that before any reforms are put in place, SFPD and its oversight body, the commission, must make sure the systems already in place actually work.
“If the [EIS] system has not been working as intended over the past nine years, the Commission should find out why, so that it — and the public — can be assured that any changes will become operational,” noted the ACLU in a Feb. 29 letter to the commission.
“It’s the difference between asking the communities most impacted by police uses of force and most skeptical of the SFPD to ‘just trust us’ as opposed to a ‘we’re willing to show you too’ attitude that demonstrates a sincere desire to earn that trust with a commitment to transparency and accountability,” the letter reads.
Commission President Suzy Loftus would not take a side on the debate over the EIS because she said she needs more information before she can make a call on the system’s efficacy. But she did say a commission member meets with EIS board four times a year.
“There’s a quarterly EIS meeting attended by a commissioner,” she said in reference to commission oversight. “Given the significant community interest in this effort to identify officers early and intervene, I will continue to bring the discussion at the commission level. I need more data to evaluate whether it’s working. I asked for much of it at their first presentation.”
MISCONDUCT NOT FLAGGED
Some are asking why the system didn’t catch recent major cases of police misconduct, like a handful of officers who sent racist texts.
Fourteen officers who were found to have participated in sending a bundle of racist and homophobic text messages apparently did not get flagged. The texts emerged from a federal case involving former SFPD Sgt. Ian Furminger, who was convicted of corruption and is now serving prison time.
“You should ask why the EIS did not identify and correct the behavior of these officers before these scandals unfolded,” wrote Crew in a Feb. 12 email to commissioners Joe Marshall and DeJesus. “That’s what it was designed to do. Why didn’t it work? Or did the SFPD never really make a serious effort to ensure that EIS operated to its full potential? (If so, who’s responsible for that failure?).”
That may be because the system has major design flaws, people with knowledge of its workings tell the San Francisco Examiner.
Officers say the system isn’t really working for several reasons.
First, the system catches good and bad officers, and serious and trivial incidents, because most officers are flagged after a complaint is filed, regardless of the seriousness or legitimacy.
Despite the rate at which officers are flagged, the system may also be missing the worst cases. Much like in the case of Sgt. Furminger, undercover officers are operating in a realm where few complaints emerge, because the people they are closest to are often either criminals or confidential sources who may not be inclined to file complaints of police misconduct.
Crew disagrees with these assertions. If the system is catching too many officers, he said, then there should be far more people who are flagged and subject to intervention.