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Back to Archives | Back to October 2007 Contents 

Problem Officer Variables and Early-Warning Systems

By Frank Hughes, Associate Professor, and Lisa B. Andre, Instructor, Grand Valley State University School of Criminal Justice, Grand Rapids, Michigan


llegations of police misconduct are a concern for many. Officers, agencies, and communities can all be affected. A growing number of researchers have indicated that approximately 10 percent of police officers can cause, or have caused, 90 percent of the problems in law enforcement agencies. In 1981, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that all police agencies create an early-warning system (EWS) to identify problem officers, who exhibit most of the patterns of improper behavior and about whom the majority of complaints are received. By 1999, 27 percent of local law enforcement agencies serving populations of 50,000 or more had established an EWS; another 12 percent were planning on implementing such a program.1 An EWS is a police management database tool designed to identify officers whose behavior is problematic and to provide a form of intervention to correct that behavior.

EWSs have three basic phases: selection, intervention, and postintervention monitoring. This article focuses primarily on the selection phase, examining possible variables that relate to future officer misconduct. Through early-warning systems, officers are identified by behavior, performance, and situational factors in well maintained database and records systems. Once officers have been identified as problematic for the EWS program, management intervenes to change their behavior. After the intervention, the officer’s subsequent behavior and performance are monitored to ensure the success of the intervention. However, in order for an EWS to be effective at all, those wishing to implement such a system must first properly identify the appropriate variables that are causing or creating a problem. Exploring these variables is important not only for the implementation and/or improvement of an EWS but also for the improvement of internal-affairs investigation processes as well as policy and decision making. Once the proper variables are identified and targeted, EWSs can assist agencies in the early identification of and intervention in the behavior of problem officers, helping to reduce liabilities and preserve the officer’s career. It should be noted that the research in the area of problem variables is relatively new and by no means definitive. Police agencies considering implementation of an EWS should keep in mind that their unique personnel make-up, the types of police services they provide, and the demographics of the community they serve will all affect the type and extent of police misconduct allegations.

Implementation of EWSs and Stakeholders

Stakeholders in EWSs include police management, government officials, citizens within the community, and police officers themselves. EWSs can be considered a risk management process since they attempt to identify officers whose performance might result in serious harm to an agency resulting from civil litigation.2

EWSs themselves do not involve formal discipline, although officers may be disciplined for one of the behaviors or actions that lead to their identification within the system. Perhaps the most influential support for employing EWSs came from the 1991 Christopher Commission report following the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. From its investigation, the commission found that a small group of officers was responsible for a disproportionate number of citizen complaints. The commission acknowledged 44 “problem officers” within the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), who had alarmingly high rates of citizen complaints, and commented that these officers were “readily identifiable” on the basis of existing LAPD records. At least six allegations of excessive force or improper use of tactics had been made against each of the 44 officers. The commission, however, found that none of these officers received any considerable discipline, and some were even given especially favorable performance reviews.3

Traditional police personnel evaluation systems have generally failed to deal successfully with problem officers. EWSs are generally part of a larger effort to raise the level of accountability in a police agency and to communicate to officers that recurring misconduct will not be tolerated. Problem officers are typically well known to their supervisors, their peers, the administration, and the citizen residents of the areas in which they work. Police agencies have been punishment oriented in the past; very little attention has been given to officers with recurring problems, and few formal programs have been put in place to assist individual officers in improving their performance. Performance assessment categories in personnel evaluation systems have been rather vague in the past (e.g., “dependable,“shows initiative”), and many performance evaluations poorly reflect the work officers actually perform.

Efforts to deal effectively with police misconduct have been reactive, as opposed to proactive, in the past. EWSs were developed as proactive tools and can include a mutual effort of several disciplines.4 Depending on the particular EWS and database, criteria for identifying problem officers and selecting them for intervention are critical. In order for an EWS to be effective at all, the system must first properly identify the appropriate variables that may be causing the problem.

Problem Officer Variables

Researchers have identified several variables relating to the identification of problem police officers. These variables include both officer characteristics and job characteristics. A study performed in 1991 looked at the relationship between the “big five” personality characteristics and police officers’ job performance.5 The big five are extroversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Barrick and Mount found conscientiousness to have the strongest relation to good police performance, whereas agreeableness, emotional stability, and extroversion were tied significantly to police performance.6 The researchers did not find any association between openness to experience and police performance. Two strengths of the big five personality characteristics include the fact that there have been several studies using different theories, instruments, and samples where these factors have been replicated. Also, several studies have found the big five to be unrelated to individuals’ cognitive abilities.

Other variables include an agency’s organizational culture and situational factors that officers may face on the job, such as working in a high-crime area. Research has indicated that job environment, occupational socialization, and job stress can explain problematic behavior better than personality traits. Focusing too much attention on selecting officers with desirable personality traits can surpass the importance of police occupational cultures and some of the distinctive features the job environment possesses. Don Walker’s research on the “rotten apple theory” of police misbehavior argued that due to occupational socialization, honest, moral officers with desirable personality traits can become engaged in misbehavior if their police organization supports, condones, and/or socializes officers into such behaviors.7

In 1988, Dugan and Breda mailed a questionnaire to all general law enforcement agencies in the state of Washington.8 Usable responses were received from 165 agencies, who were asked to report the lawsuits and agency-investigated complaints filed against their officers during a one-year period. Five types of complaints were analyzed with regard to frequency, distribution among agencies and officers, and sustainment of the complaint. The complaint types used were deadly force, physical force, abuse of authority, verbal misconduct, failure to act, and “other.” Among the 165 responding agencies, representing 3,515 officers, it was reported that 437 officers received 691 complaints. Various agencies sustained 25 percent of these complaints against 4.4 percent of the officers. Although this research indicated abuse of authority as one of the types of complaints, verbal misconduct was found to occur more frequently and for more officers than any other type of complaint. Limitations to the study include the data collection method of questionnaires, in which responses could differ depending on varying definitions of terminology used by both researchers and respondents. Furthermore, the researchers had no control over how each responding agency maintained departmental records on the data the researchers sought.

Police officers who have received an excessive number of citizen complaints constitute a variable that is frequently considered. In 2005, researchers looked at a newer psychological personality assessment device called the Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI).9 The PAI is a newcomer in personality assessment devices, unlike the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), which police agencies have used widely and accepted in the past. Researchers worked with a sample of 800 potential officer candidates who had been administered the PAI through a private company that specialized in the area of police selection. Men were overrepresented, with 648 male subjects and 152 female subjects. After a period of one year on the job, these officers were analyzed for significant behavioral problems. The results showed “antisocial-egocentricity” on the assessment to be a possible predictor of insubordination and excessive citizen complaints. The researchers concluded that a person who is highly egocentric would lack empathy and not be a very good listener. Officers that had higher levels of antisocial-egocentricity were also more likely to have anger control problems and be impulsive.

McElvain and Kposowa studied the relationship between police officer characteristics (e.g., experience, race, gender, and age) and internal-affairs investigations for allegations of inappropriate use of force.10 Data were drawn from officer personnel files at the Riverside County, California, Sheriff’s Department from the years 1996 through 2000, with men once again overrepresented. Overall, officers with less departmental experience had higher chances of being investigated by internal affairs. The researchers did not find any significant racial disparities but found that “officers with a history of allegations of use of force investigations were considerably more likely to be subsequently investigated for alleged uses of force.”11 Researchers concluded that if more attention were paid to training and mentoring newer and younger officers, agencies could perhaps noticeably cut down on the number of investigations regarding use of force. Limitations to the study could include the fact that all cases of use-of-force incidents were included in the sample, not just citizen complaints of inappropriate use of force. For example, all purposeful discharges of firearms (e.g., officer-subject shootings and officer-dog shootings) are automatically investigated per department policy and procedure. During the study period, interestingly enough, none of the officer-involved shootings resulted in the filing of a citizen complaint.

Prior discipline, shootings and/or use of other weapons, and training are additional variables relating to the identification of problem officers.12 Training is an interesting variable when applied to EWSs, as it can most certainly be included in the intervention phase. Training issues can also arise even before officer candidates reach the agency. Police academies might misrepresent stories of justifiable violence against criminals, and, during the probationary period, officers are influenced by field training officers (FTOs), whose own behavior and actions can shape new recruits’ future conduct. It is important for agencies to look at their new-recruit training policies and who is conducting the training. Agencies would naturally want to have FTOs with proven track records in performance and integrity.

Points of Consideration with Early Warning Systems

In analyzing any research involving complaint investigations against police (i.e., citizen complaints or internal affairs investigations), it is important to keep in mind the wide variety of systems and procedures for investigating such complaints. For example, there are “open” systems, which favor civilian involvement and citizen awareness. Open systems include civilian review boards and/or public forums. There are also “closed” systems, which investigating personnel operate only within police agencies, disclosing little or no information to the public regarding the case. Citizens continue to distrust a purely internal system; this method of investigation can therefore erode citizen confidence in the police.

Proponents of external reviews argue that involving citizens in the complaint system infuses an element of independence and impartiality into the procedures and can also aid in police-community relations. Proponents also argue that police complaint investigation procedures should be more inclusive of cultural differences and should focus on providing information to complainants and achieving compliance from officers. When officers investigate their own people, will the investigations be unbiased? Arguments for investigative standards within internal review units contend that this method has the advantage of allowing investigators to take the initiative and operate proactively in seeking out misconduct. An EWS would be one such initiative for police agencies. By contrast, external review boards must wait to receive complaints before starting any type of “flagging” or investigation.

Unfortunately, complaint rates can be misused as statistics. For example, an increasing number of complaints filed within a particular agency may not necessarily mean that officers are engaged in misconduct. Increasing complaint numbers could be interpreted as a sign of increased citizen confidence in an agency’s complaint system. On the other hand, persons with genuine complaints sometimes fail to complain; therefore, statistical analysis of complaint rates can never be completely accurate. It is critical for police managers to look beyond just the number of complaints filed and examine the basis for each individual complaint of misconduct.

Compared with other proactive measures in police management, an EWS has its advantages. For example, another proactive measure of police misconduct is integrity testing, which involves placing officers in a situation where they are tempted to deviate from agency policy or even the law and they are followed by various electronic or surveillance devices. Internal-affairs divisions can target specific officers or select random officers to measure corruption within the department. The problem with this testing is that the degree to which it is “successful” depends largely on the quality of the design, the way the tests are performed, and the systems used in the process of selecting targets.

Most EWSs utilize a data design that collects information on all officers and employees, not just targeted or random groups. Therefore, EWSs would likely prove to be a more equitable proactive tool than integrity testing. EWSs also employ a method of data collection that is known to all employees in the department, unlike integrity testing. Furthermore, the stigma of “setting up” another officer cannot be associated with an EWS, as might happen with integrity tests.

If managed appropriately, EWSs could identify possible problem officers before their problems become too significant. Of course, personality characteristics can be difficult to track as opposed to job characteristics. Excessive citizen complaints, excessive use of force, experience, age and gender, prior discipline, and training issues are all variables that, if tracked properly, could help police agencies to identify problems early on and intervene fittingly.

EWS Cost and Operations

Typically, EWSs utilize internal investigations management software rather than attempt to maintain meticulous records manually. Several software systems are available, including IA Trak, BlueOrder, Sergeant Software, and IAPro.13 IAPro packages start at approximately $10,000 and can be completely customized to suit agencies’ varying needs.

EWSs are likely to be effective when used by an agency that has high standards of accountability and uses a database system that captures relevant information on police officer performance. EWSs should also be deployed in police agencies that have a commitment to integrity and punish serious forms of misconduct. Otherwise, such a system could become yet another formal bureaucratic procedure, and the agency may end up overwhelmed with problems as a result of the failure to investigate alleged misconduct and/or to discipline officers when appropriate. A poorly managed EWS can also generate feelings of hostility and cynicism among officers to the point that it harms the agency as a whole. EWSs are therefore high-maintenance programs that require ongoing administrative attention.


EWSs have been emerging as a proactive measure to fight police misconduct. They have been endorsed by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1981, the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1989, the 1996 Justice Department national conference on police integrity, and by private consultants. These systems can be an important management tool for controlling officer misconduct and promoting standards of accountability within a police department; however, for an EWS to be effective at all, the system must first properly identify the appropriate variables that are causing problems for the agency. These variables may differ for individual police agencies based on their personnel, range of services offered, and community demographics. Fear of liability exposure from having such a system should never be allowed to keep an agency from doing something that it believes reinforces the mission of law enforcement and its obligation of accountability to the public. Once police agencies identify their potential problem officers using an EWS, they can implement appropriate intevention strategies and monitoring techniques with a higher level of confidence.■

Dr. Frank Hughes is an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). Prior to joining the GVSU faculty, he served 25 years with the Michigan Department of State Police, retiring as commander of the Mt. Pleasant post.
Lisa B. Andre, M.S., is currently an instructor at the GVSU School of Criminal Justice. She has five years of law enforcement experience as a patrol officer and three years’ additional experience as an investigator in the private sector.

1Samuel Walker, Geoffrey P. Alpert, and Dennis J. Kenney, “Early Warning Systems: Responding to the Problem Police Officer,” National Institute of Justice Research in Brief, July 2001, (accessed September 6, 2007).
2Samuel Walker and Geoffrey P. Alpert, “Police Accountability: Establishing an Early Warning System,” International City/County Management Association IQ Report 32, no. 8 (2000): 1–11.
3William Terrill and John McCluskey, “Citizen Complaints and Problem Officers: Examining Officer Behavior,” Journal of Criminal Justice 30, no. 2 (2002): 143–155.
4Jon Arnold, “Special Report II: Ethics—Early Misconduct Detection,” Law & Order 49, no. 8 (2001): 80–87.
5Beth A. Sanders, “Maybe There’s No Such Thing As a ‘Good Cop’: Organizational Challenges in Selecting Quality Officers,” Policing 26, no. 2 (2003): 313–328.
6Murray R. Barrick and Michael K. Mount, “The ‘Big Five’ Personality Dimensions and Job Performance: A Meta-analysis,” Personnel Psychology 44 (1991): 1–26.
7Don Walker, “The Relationship between Social Research and Public Policy: The Case of Police Selection Process,” American Journal of Police 5, no. 1 (1986): 1–22.
8John R. Dugan and Daniel R. Breda, “Complaints about Police Officers: A Comparison among Types and Agencies,” Journal of Criminal Justice 19 (1991): 165–171.
9William U. Weiss et al., “Problematic Police Performance and the Personality Assessment Inventory,” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 20, no. 1 (2005): 16–21.
10James P. McElvain and Augustine J. Kposowa, “Police Officer Characteristics and Internal Affairs Investigations for Use of Force Allegations,” Journal of Criminal Justice 32, no. 3 (2004): 265–279.
11Ibid., 265.
12Lori Rhyons and David C. Brewster, “Employee Early Warning Systems: Helping Supervisors Protect Citizens, Officers, and Agencies,” The Police Chief 69, no. 11 (November 2002): 32–36.
13Tim Dees, “Up Close: Internal Affairs: Internal Affairs Management Software,” Law & Order 51, no. 5 (May 2003): 88–94.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 10, October 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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