Seattle Police prepare for a big computer upgrade
by Bill Lucia
Seattle Police on May Day 2014: More information about police performance is on the way. Credit: Kdingo/Flickr
The Seattle Police Department is preparing to acquire a multi-million dollar computer system, which would provide powerful tools to manage and analyze data about both officer performance and city crime.
The officer performance components of the new “business intelligence system” are considered integral to Seattle’s efforts to comply with the requirements of a federally mandated police reform process. This part of the system would be used to manage information about things like use-of-force incidents and complaints against officers.
The independent monitor overseeing Seattle’s reforms has said that the department’s current methods for tracking these types of data lag 20 years behind some other big city law enforcement agencies. And a recent report prepared by Price Waterhouse Coopers found that paper records commonly bog down a program designed to identify officers exhibiting risky on-the-job behavior.
Mayor Ed Murray on Monday morning nominated former Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole as Seattle’s next chief of police. If O’Toole is confirmed by the City Council, the business intelligence system promises to be one of the bigger reform-related undertakings that will unfold on her watch.
Seattle Police Captain Ron Rasmussen, who is helping to oversee the computer project for the department, said, “The first things we are going to want to address are the ones involved in the settlement agreement.”
The settlement agreement is between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice and is one of the key documents guiding reform process. The reforms were prompted by a 2011 investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, which found a pattern of use-of-force violations.
While the reform-related upgrades are the department’s priority, police and city officials are looking for a business intelligence system that also includes features that could be used to analyze and prevent crime.
“The police department, especially in Seattle, should have state of the art computerization for all of the parts of policing that require data,” City Councilmember Tim Burgess said. “Even though the Department of Justice is focused on officer accountability we should not do just that.”
In a nutshell, a business intelligence system provides computer databases and software that organizations can use to work with large amounts of data. On one end, users enter raw information into computer programs. This information ends up stored in big databases, also called a “data warehouse.” On the other end of the system is an interface for users to access, search or analyze the information.
The Price Waterhouse Coopers report describes a “dashboard” interface where supervisors, such as sergeants, would be able to see a variety of up-to-date information about each of their officers, including use-of-force incidents, commendations and sick days. The systems can also provide tools for predicting trends based on data, sharing information between or within organizations, and presenting it in maps or other types of visualizations.
The police department’s system will be custom-built. Rasmussen said that getting it fully up and running will likely take a number of years, but could not offer a specific time frame.
Rasmussen and other department officials are currently working with members of the monitor’s team, other city agencies and staff from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to better determine what the system should include. In a project plan issued on April 30, Assistant Chief Tag Gleason, who commands the Compliance and Professional Standards Bureau, said the department plans to issue a “request for proposals” for the system in mid-August, select a vendor in October and then begin work on the system in December.
Because the project is still in the early planning stages, its cost has not been nailed down. But the Price Waterhouse Coopers report estimated that building a system that would fill in the computing gaps tied to the federal reform process would require about $11.8 million in initial spending and $904,880 annually to maintain. The money would pay for things like designing the system, hardware, software, computer engineers and training, as well as cleaning up old data so that it can be used going forward.
Merrick Bobb is Seattle’s federally appointed police reform monitor. Bobb has indicated that his team will not tell a federal court that Seattle has complied with the Justice Department’s requirements until the business intelligence system is in place.
In his second semi-annual report, which was issued last December, he knocked the department’s data management methods.
“The SPD generates frequently erroneous and incomplete factual information about itself and officer performance,” he wrote. “The lack of timely, trustworthy data is a substantial impediment to progress, efficient management, and effective policing.”
Bobb, and monitoring team member Matthew Barge, recently sent a memo to the Mayor’s Office that outlined some of features they believe should be included in the business intelligence system. These included tools to report and review incidents, store officer performance data and look for trends both across the department and with individual cops. They said that the department’s Office of Professional Accountability, which handles misconduct complaints, and the Force Investigation Team, which looks into serious use-of-force incidents like shootings, would also use the system to manage cases.
Information and software for a “performance mentoring” program — the department’s name for its early intervention system — will be a part of the system as well. Early intervention systems, used by departments around the country, provide supervisors with a way to identify officers who are in need of more training, headed toward disciplinary trouble, or experiencing on-the-job stress.
Seattle’s system includes criteria like use-of-force incidents, vehicle collisions, missed court dates, lawsuits and complaints. Each of the criteria has a threshold — for instance, seven use-of-force incidents in six months or three complaints in a year. When an officer reaches a threshold, their supervisor and other department staff conduct a review of the officer’s on-the-job performance. The system is not designed to be punitive or disciplinary. Depending on the circumstances, the review might lead to more training, a different assignment or counseling.
For other cities that have undergone federal police reforms, establishing a well-functioning early intervention system has proven to be a crucial step in completing the process.
“We had to computerize everything,” said Robert McNeilly, who was Pittsburgh’s chief during the time the city’s department went through a federally mandated reform process that began in 1997 and lasted until 2002.
McNeilly, who is now chief of police in Elizabeth Township, Pennsylvania, said that it took more than two years to develop the system. The project involved several different companies and cost the department millions of dollars, but McNeilly says it was worth it.
“If you don’t track what you’re doing,” he said, “how do you know if you’re doing it right?”
Seattle’s department is already tracking early intervention information, but Bobb has raised issues about the quality of the data and the difficulty department staff have accessing and analyzing it with existing computer systems. The department uses its Administrative Investigations Management, or AIM, computer system to log and manage performance mentoring information.
Bobb’s semi-annual report referred to AIM as “unacceptably antiquated, impractical, and onerous to use.”
The Price Waterhouse Coopers report said early-intervention reports moved through the department on paper, were commonly backlogged and were not automatically generated when officers hit thresholds. This means that sergeants do not have daily, up-to-date access to performance information for the officers they supervise.
The department is addressing this issue in the near term with software called IAPro. The software provides the sergeants with yellow or red “stoplight” indicators to show how close an officer is getting to each of the performance-mentoring thresholds. This feature might be replaced or updated when the full-blown business intelligence system is in place. The department is just beginning to implement the portion of IAPro that patrol sergeants will use. According to Rasmussen, it should be fully operational in December of this year.
“We want sergeants to have that kind of information at their fingertips,” Rasmussen said. “That really helps drive great conversations between supervisors and employees.”
While that many be true, people familiar with the department say that some officers feel as though they are subject to an unreasonable amount of scrutiny since the reform process began and, as a result, are taking a less proactive approach to policing. Using new technology to closely monitor officer performance could heighten existing tension. Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild did not return a call asking for comment about the new business intelligence system.
“We probably saved careers,” said Neal Tyler, as he discussed the Personnel Performance Index, which the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has used since 1997 as an early intervention tool. Tyler recently came out of retirement to do a 10-month stint as interim under sheriff in Los Angeles County, but worked on the index earlier in his career.
Bobb has described the business intelligence system his team envisions for Seattle as a “close first cousin” of the index. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has hired Bobb since 1993 to provide outside guidance for the sheriff’s department.
Tyler said that when the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department introduced the index, officers were understandably nervous about how it would be used, but that over time that feeling subsided. He said the department worked especially hard to train supervisors so that they knew how to interpret the data pulled from the system. High use-of-force numbers could indicate any number of things, he said, like perhaps the officer is working in an especially active beat.
“The numbers,” he said, “don’t tell you the whole story by any stretch.”
McNeilly, the former Pittsburgh chief, agreed. “What’s more important is what’s done with the information,” he said. “The computer system will not make any decisions about whether an officer has done anything right or wrong.”
One surprise for McNeilly was how well Pittsburgh’s early intervention system helped the department spot top-notch officers. When it came time to select an officer for a narcotics assignment for instance, he said that it was easy to find the people who most commonly conducted legal searches and seizures.
“We were able to identify people who were really working hard,” he said.
It remains unclear exactly what types of crime prevention and analysis features the business intelligence system might include. But city officials, including Mayor Ed Murray, attended a workshop on April 3 where Microsoft representatives discussed the department’s business intelligence needs. In an agenda for that workshop, Microsoft suggested that its Aware systems might be a good fit for the department. New York City’s police department currently uses Aware products.
A Microsoft spokesperson was unable to arrange an interview with someone who could speak about Aware last week. But the company’s literature says the system can instantly collect and process information from video cameras, license plate detectors and social media when response situations unfold. Providing an alert after detecting the word “gun” in multiple tweets sent from an area near a school is one capability of the system the company cites.
There is no indication that the city intends to purchase an Aware system, or any similar product. But depending on its scope, the business intelligence system might set off alarm bells among Seattle privacy advocates. The department has caused recent pubic outcries by purchasing aerial drones, placing surveillance cameras along the city’s waterfront and installing a “mesh network,” which could potentially be used to track the movement of cell-phones and laptops. Until new policies are in place all of that equipment remains on ice.
Rasmussen said there were no plans in the works to connect the business intelligence system to the mesh network. The law enforcement uses he described were less surveillance-oriented and more along the lines of looking for crime patterns, and making fast and easy comparisons of data across geographic areas and time periods.
“When you start to do that,” Rasmussen said, “all kinds of things really jump out at you.”
Rasmussen notes that companies like grocery store chains use similar systems to mine for patterns in people’s purchasing habits. The same approach can be used to look at crime data, he said. Business intelligence systems allow analysts to search for correlations between variables like the age of offenders, the type of cars that get stolen or even the weather, to identify crime trends.
“I think everyone agrees that really good data is good for a business,” Rasmussen said as he discussed the system. But earlier in the conversation he also acknowledged that, given the monitor’s position, “We don’t really have a choice. This is something we have to do.”