Problem Officer Variables and Early-Warning Systems

Allegations 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.