A landmark reform instituted 16 years ago by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to weed out problem deputies has been remarkably successful in identifying officers who have the potential for misconduct and excessive force, according to a report released Tuesday.
The study concluded that there is a strong link between the number of complaints filed against a deputy -- proven or not -- and the possibility that the deputy will eventually get into serious trouble and become a liability for the department
The monitoring system, which tracks complaints, conduct and use of force, was established in 1993 after a scathing report by a special commission found a "disturbing" pattern of excessive force and mistreatment of minorities in the Sheriff's Department.
The early-warning system was the first of its kind in the nation, according to Merrick Bobb, special counsel for the county Board of Supervisors.
Known as the Personnel Performance Index, the system has succeeded in identifying deputies with a likelihood of getting into trouble and has allowed the department to mentor the officers and monitor their behavior, Bobb said.
"An outstanding officer suddenly going bad is rare," he wrote in his semiannual report on the Sheriff's Department. "Far more often, the thinking goes, officers involved in an incident especially harmful to the department or the community have a history of substandard or worrisome performance."
The study examined the records of 561 deputies and found that officers who had been named in use-of-force complaints, even if the accusations were unproven, were more likely to be involved in shootings and successful lawsuits against the department.
For every four to five allegations of improper use of force lodged against a deputy, there was an average increase of one shooting, Bobb said.
Although the system cannot predict whether a deputy will become involved in a shooting, Bobb said it "can say deputies with five allegations are generally more likely to be involved in more shootings on patrol."
The analysis also found that derogatory language and absence from work are connected to an increase in problematic behavior.
Bobb said his study indicated that the behavior of deputies who had been red-flagged by the tracking system improved dramatically after three years of mentoring.
Although the system appears to be working, Bobb said he wants ranking sheriff's officials to pay even greater attention to unfounded allegations because of the pattern he discovered.
"It didn't make a lot of difference whether an allegation against a deputy was found to be true or not -- the existence of the complaint or investigation alone was a strong indicator of a potentially problematic officer," Bobb said in an interview.
The deputy performance system monitors an employee's administrative investigations, operational vehicle investigations, civil claims, lawsuits, use of force, deadly shootings, public commendations and complaints, and internal commendations.
Bobb said he wants to include detention and arrest data, inmate complaints, criminal investigations and data on warrantless stops and seizures.
"The good news is this system is working," Bobb said. "It could work even better."