Early intervention systems offer the power to identify struggling officers as well as high performers

By mining their own data, departments can pinpoint issues, save careers and better serve communities


By Chief Robert McNeilly, Jr.

The emotional and physical tolls of working in law enforcement can leave officers stressed, struggling to cope and put them in danger of becoming a detriment to themselves, their department and the community.

For example, some studies have shown up to 25% of a department’s officers grapple with substance abuse. An officer experiencing this difficulty may also be experiencing financial and relationship problems that will affect the officer’s performance. Other studies indicate that many officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the nature of their work. Unfortunately, some of those officers and their supervisors fail to recognize PTSD and would not know how to get help for themselves or their subordinates even if they did recognize it.

A Pew Research Center survey of officers published on March 9, 2017, found that nearly one in five officers (21%) were frequently angry and frustrated on the job. It also found those officers were more likely to support more physical or aggressive policing. The anger, the frustration, the prospect of policing more physically and aggressively, and the excessive use of alcohol dramatically decrease the likelihood that an officer will have a successful career.

To help disrupt these harmful patterns, an early intervention system (EIS) can identify officers experiencing anger management issues or exhibiting other problematic issues through data, including use of force, restraining orders, criminal investigations, lawsuits, citizen complaints, excessive sick leave and supervisor counseling. Although there may only be one or two instances in each of those areas, the culmination of alerts and the type of performance measures signaled can indicate anger management problems.

Having an EIS is a benefit to the officer, the department and the community. The more information the EIS can make available to the supervisor, the more effective the system will be and the more valuable it will be to the officers and the department.

COST-SAVING WITH EIS

There may be a cost for an EIS, but those costs may prove to be cost-effective if the system is used to its fullest potential. Here are the potential areas of savings departments could expect:  

Department efficiency. Organizations can enhance efficiency by identifying the high-performing officers and placing them in the right positions, which results in producing better work with fewer personnel.

Reduced costs related to personnel actions. Early intervention can identify officers who need assistance earlier, leading to fewer disciplinary cases and saving careers by addressing poor performance before the officer gets to a point of termination.

Reduced costs in the community. EIS can identify poor-performing officers and encourage supervisors to take corrective action to prevent expensive claims and lawsuits and ultimately provide better interaction with citizens.

EARLY INTERVENTION SYSTEM DATA

In addition to the information needed to make knowledgeable assessments of employee performance, it’s critical to know how to use the information and to incorporate comprehensive procedures to ensure the data isn’t wasted.

To have a premier EIS, an agency would need to include all the following information:

  • Awards
  • Promotions
  • Arrests *
  • Discretionary arrests (disorderly conduct, public intoxication, obstructing, interference with officer/administration of law) *
  • Traffic stops *
  • Vehicle pursuits *
  • Search/seizure *
  • Subject resistance *
  • Weapons discharge (intentional and unintentional) *
  • Training records
  • Transfers
  • Secondary employment
  • Officer injury
  • Criminal investigations *
  • Civil claims and lawsuits *
  • Citizen complaints *
  • Suspensions *
  • Disciplinary action *
  • Sick leave *
  • Vehicle collisions *
  • Mandatory counseling *
  • Missed court appearances *
  • Loss of equipment *
  • Officer subject to restraining order *

*Essential data – minimum performance measures to identify officer performance problems.

TECHNOLOGY: DEVELOPING AN EIS

In the 1990s there were few companies with experience developing an early intervention system, especially one that contained more than three or four performance measures. Generally, those that did tracked only a few performance measures such as citizen complaints, use of force and vehicle collisions.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police tracked 19 performance measures when their system became operational in 1998. Many more performance measures have been added since then. Today there are many companies available to assist agencies.

Most agencies already have computerized records for police reports, use of force and training records like Pittsburgh. All that is required is ensuring the same data the department is already capturing is also entered into the EIS, where supervisors have access to all officer performance records in one system.

Chiefs should locate a vendor with experience in taking the data a department already has and bringing it all together into one system. For example, in Pittsburgh, the training academy entered training data, the personnel section entered sick leave data, and the data on use of force, arrests and searches were all entered from the records department. Electronic data existed for each performance measure and so wherever it was entered, it was also included in the EIS.

Smaller departments may not have everything stored electronically or they may share a system with 10-20 other police agencies. At a minimum, small departments that may have difficulty working with a vendor should create spreadsheets for each performance measure. And, at a minimum, there should be a spreadsheet for each of the performance measure marked above as essential data.

Once the monthly or quarterly data are entered, each spreadsheet should be sorted so the officer with the highest number of occurrences (such as use of force, citizen complaints, or sick leave) are listed at the top of the spreadsheet. The performance of those listed in the top 10%-15% of each spreadsheet should be reviewed and compared with all other spreadsheets to determine the officers with the most occurrences in each performance measure.

There is always a way to have an EIS. Some are more elaborate than others, but they are all necessary to demonstrate a department is being responsive to the needs of the community by evaluating the data a department already has. Not doing so may leave the department liable for failure to supervise since they either knew or should have known which officers needed to be more closely supervised. 


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PEER GROUPS, THRESHOLDS AND ALERTS

For a supervisor to be able to decide whether an officer’s performance is exceptional, normal, or substandard, it is helpful for a supervisor to have a benchmark of the performance of all other officers performing similar duties in similar work environments. An officer exceeding the established threshold results in an alert to the officer’s supervisor.

Alerts to supervisors are either by occurrence for those that are infrequent or by standard deviation for more numerous police activities. For infrequent police activities, a yellow alert would notify a supervisor if an officer had one instance of any activity recorded during the prior quarter.

Each of these occurrences is important although they do occur occasionally. A red alert would notify a supervisor if an officer had two occurrences of the same type in any of the following during the prior quarter. It is unusual for an officer to have two occurrences of the same type in a quarter.

  • Weapon discharge
  • Officer injury
  • Criminal investigation
  • Civil claim or lawsuit
  • Citizen complaint
  • Unauthorized absence
  • Vehicle collision
  • Mandatory counseling
  • Missed court appearance
  • Disciplinary action
  • Suspensions
  • Loss of equipment
  • Officer subject to restraining order

Not all police activities should be measured by the number of occurrences such as arrests, traffic stops and use of force. Although the above groups prompted alerts for either one or two occurrences in a quarter, the second group of measurements should be determined by comparisons to the officers’ peer groups who work in similar environments. The best method to determine the officers who make more arrests, use force and conduct more searches than their peer group is to make those determinations using standard deviations.

Officer performance measures that are one standard deviation above the norm would be indicated with a yellow alert while those performance measures that are two standard deviations above the norm would be indicated by a red alert.

Example of thresholds to trigger alerts would be:

Alerts should be delivered to supervisors when actions in any of the performance measures exceed the threshold established.

IDENTIFYING AND REWARDING BEST PERFORMERS

Simply because an officer is the subject of an alert, or even several alerts, does not indicate the officer was involved in any wrongdoing. Alerts are only intended to prompt supervisors to review an officer’s performance. Some alerts should be expected, including use of force, search/seizure and sick leave since it is likely some officers will be one or two standard deviations above the norm.

If a supervisor reviews the information and finds the officer’s searches were appropriate and the occurrences were properly documented, it may demonstrate that the officer is one of the high performers in that area of the department. The EIS can be used to identify high performers more often than identifying troubled employees. The high performers may then be considered for assignments where they have demonstrated initiative, knowledge and experience.

To help determine whether an officer’s performance is exceptional, satisfactory or substandard, supervisors should review the data from all police performance measures to look for patterns. To help supervisors determine patterns, the data should be provided in sections.

The first section includes officer actions that are specific to policing. It is expected that officers will have activity in these areas while performing their duties. The supervisor, after viewing the data, will need to determine if it indicates a department’s high performer or be an indication of a problem.

Police actions to consider:

  • Arrests
  • Traffic stops/citations/warnings
  • Pursuits
  • Search/seizure
  • Subject resistance
  • Weapon discharge

IDENTIFYING STRUGGLING OFFICERS

The supervisor, using an EIS, may observe the officer’s productivity has decreased in arrests and traffic stops while the officer has demonstrated an increase in sick leave, missed a court appearance, received a citizen complaint, had a vehicle collision, lost a piece of equipment, and been counseled by a supervisor. Although there may only be one occurrence or two in each of those areas, the culmination of alerts and the type of performance measures signaled can indicate substance abuse problems and other concerns.

It is not expected that officers will have occurrences in the following areas. Having occurrences in these areas may occur from time to time but need thorough review when one does occur:

  • Criminal investigation
  • Civil claim/lawsuit
  • Citizen complaint
  • Discipline
  • Unauthorized leave
  • Excessive sick leave
  • Vehicle collisions
  • Missed court
  • Lost equipment
  • Restraining order

PROTECTING A DEPARTMENT AND SUPERVISORS

It is important that supervisors meet with their subordinates when a supervisor encounters an alert or alerts that signal unusual performance or after a quarterly review of all the information contained in the EIS.

The EIS provides the data to help supervisors assess their subordinates’ performance. EIS cannot take the place of the many years of training and experience supervisors gained during their careers. However, supervisors must genuinely determine if the data provided to them indicates an acceptable performance or problematic performance.

Failure to identify and reward positive performance tends to discourage the best performers while failure to identify and take appropriate action neglects the needs of those performing poorly, poses liability for the department and ignores the exceptional service the community expects.

After reviewing alerts, supervisors have options to recommend:

  1. Award: If the supervisor genuinely is convinced the EIS data identifies superior performance and can explain those reasons.
  2. No action necessary: If the supervisor determines the data identifies acceptable performance, the supervisor should recommend no action is necessary.
  3. Monitoring: If the supervisor is unable to determine if the data may indicate an officer experiencing difficulty, the supervisor should provide monitoring. Monitoring should be defined as an identified number of occasions the supervisor physically observes or reviews recordings of the officer’s performance.
  4. Training: Recommendations may include additional training in policy, communication skills, defensive tactics or other areas.
  5. Counseling: Recommendations may include counseling in areas such as drug/alcohol counseling/treatment, anger management counseling/treatment, or other counseling.
  6. Reassignment: Recommendations may include reassignment to temporary field training or temporary/permanent reassignment to another duty location.

[RELATED: How can leaders ensure a culture of self-policing and accountability in their agencies?]

BIAS-FREE POLICING

Biased policing is a grave concern for any department. Agencies should make every effort to ensure they track and review all officer interactions that could lead to a claim of biased policing. All the following police actions should be documented and should include the race and sex of the person.

  1. Traffic stops
  2. Arrests
  3. Discretionary arrests (contempt-of-cop charges)
  4. Subject resistance occurrence
  5. Search and seizure occurrence
  6. Vehicle pursuits
  7. Weapons discharge (intentional)
  8. Lawsuits, claims
  9. Citizen complaints

Officer data can only be properly gauged when compared with peer group data to ascertain whether an officer’s performance conforms with the peer group. The best method to present the information to supervisors is through pie charts for each police activity.

The EIS should have for each officer a pie chart with the number and percentage of encounters by race and sex and a second pie chart with the number and percentage of similar encounters by race and sex for the officer’s peer group.

A pie chart for traffic stops would look like this.

Although the number of occurrences may be few, the race and sex of those involved in those occurrences should be examined during any comprehensive review of a bias complaint.

[RELATED: Building an agency culture that embraces a duty to intervene]

DOCUMENTATION

All supervisor/subordinate meetings should be documented and considered when completing quarterly reviews and performance evaluations. That quarterly review should explore whether a pattern was identified.

Quarterly reviews are necessary to provide evidence that the department was not negligent by providing accountability by first identifying problems, and then by providing remedial training, supervision, counseling and discipline.

Command staff meetings should be scheduled quarterly with mandatory attendance by section/district commanders or their delegates who will present the quarterly report. Just as a department meets regularly to discuss criminal activity and efforts to reduce and solve the crimes that have occurred, there should be a presentation by each commander or unit to discuss all subordinates identified by EIS.

The presentation should also explain what actions were taken to reward high performers and those actions taken to address poor performance.

The entire EIS will be only as effective as the dedication and professionalism demonstrated by command staff members at this meeting.

References

  • Pew Research Center Survey conducted May 19-Aug. 14, 2016, by the National Police Research Platform of 7,017 sworn police and sheriff’s officers in 54 departments with at least 100 officers.
  • Indra Cidambi, M.D., writing for Psychology Today (3/30/2018), discussed the seriousness of officer PTSD. She wrote that between 7% to 19% of officers have symptoms of PTSD as opposed to 3.5% of the population and that the number of police suicides is 2.3 times more than the number of police killed by homicides. 
  • From the linked info: “More police die by suicide than by homicide: the number of police suicides," Indra Cidambi, MD, writing for Psychology Today (3/30/2018): Addiction within the law enforcement community across America is a widespread and serious problem. One out of four police officers on the street has an alcohol or drug abuse issue, and substance use disorders among police officers are estimated to range between 20% and 30%.

About the author

Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. served 37 years in law enforcement as an officer, a plainclothes officer, sergeant, lieutenant, commander and chief of police. He was assigned to patrol, investigations, special operations, communications, support, training, and traffic. He served as the Chief of Pittsburgh Police Bureau from 1996-2006 and led the bureau through the first “pattern or practice” consent decree between the United States Department of Justice and the Pittsburgh Police. He has served as a consent-decree monitor for the New Orleans Police Department since 2013, and he has assisted the DOJ as a subject matter expert during pattern-or-practice civil rights investigations or during the implementation of consent decrees. Chief McNeilly is married to retired Police Commander Catherine McNeilly (Pittsburgh Bureau of Police) and they currently provide training and management consulting through their company that they started in February 2006: The McNeilly Group, LLC.

Chief McNeilly has recently published his book, “The Blue Continuum: A Police Chief’s Perspective on What’s Wrong with Policing Today and How to Fix It.” Order on Amazon or here: www.thebluecontinuumpolice.com.

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