Inspectors to review Arundel police policy

New system that tracks department's use of force is aspect of accreditation

April 22, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A team of inspectors will review the Anne Arundel County Police Department's practices this week to determine whether it meets national standards.

The evaluation will include a newly installed system to track police officers' use of force, but while the system might win points in the department's quest for accreditation that doesn't mean all officers are completely happy with it.

The "personnel early warning system," started early this month, uses a computer to help count the number of times officers are involved in accidents, how frequently complaints are filed against them, and how often they use force -- ranging from firing a weapon to scuffling with a suspect.

The goal is to identify officers who might need counseling or a refresher course in when force is warranted. But some officers fear the system will unfairly flag normal police work as signs of a problem.

"On a busy shift in Northern District, an officer who makes three arrests could have to write three use-of-force reports. An officer in another position might write three use-of-force reports in a year," said Sgt. Bret Ballam, president of the county's sergeants association.

But police officials say the policy is aimed at increasing the department's accountability -- a requirement for accreditation.

Public perception is one of hundreds of areas measured by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc., which will determine whether the Anne Arundel County Police Department's national ranking should be renewed.

The department will hold a public forum tonight seeking comments from residents about whether the Police Department deserves to be accredited for the third time. "We encourage people to share their opinions with us," said Lt. Joseph E. Jordan, a county police spokesman.

Police officials have an indication of how county residents rate the department, after a survey showed that 83 percent of residents described their dealings with county officers and 911 operators to be excellent or good.

The survey, completed early this month by the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, found that 94 percent of the more than 400 residents questioned felt either "very safe" or "somewhat safe" in the county.

The telephone survey was required by the accreditation commission, whose review ranges from how well the department maintains arrest logs to how well the department has planned for weather emergencies.

"There are literally 409 standards they look at to make sure the department is in compliance with," Jordan said.

Three police chiefs -- from Connecticut, Colorado and Georgia -- will complete their inspection of the county's police records, policy manuals and district stations by Wednesday morning.

The process is voluntary, but the accreditation is prestigious among departments and helps agencies reduce their vulnerability to lawsuits.

"They have free rein to inspect anything they want," Jordan said. "They can walk into any station at any time and say, `Show me this or that.'"

In addition to touring the police training academy, headquarters and the four districts, the chiefs will look to see that confidential files are secure and evidence is stored properly.

Anne Arundel County police were accredited by the commission in 1994 and in 1999. The commission now reviews departments for accreditation every three years, enabling them to update requirements more frequently.

The early warning system is one of the new standards.

Before instituting the policy, county police officials had a series of meetings with the county's Fraternal Order of Police, which made several recommendations. Among the suggestions that were adopted was one that records should be kept with district supervisors instead of with the Internal Affairs Division, which oversees discipline.

"This is not a disciplinary tool," Jordan said.

He said officers could need to improve their report writing or their use of verbal commands when calming a volatile situation.

Some officers remain concerned that those who work higher-crime areas would disproportionately trigger the warning system.

But, police officials say that district commanders -- not a computer -- will determine if a problem exists after consulting with the officer.

"Officers are leery of most change, especially involving bureaucracy," said FOP President O'Brien Atkinson. "But we think it's going to be OK."

The public forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. today in Room 219 of the John A. Cade Center for the Fine Arts at Anne Arundel Community College.

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