Friday, March 15, 2013

Learning from LEMAP

The LEMAP (Loaned Executive Management Assistance Program) report about the Bainbridge Island Police Department was made public in early March.  This document, prepared by a team within the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, is the fifth outside examination of the BIPD and/or BIPD’s leaders within the last eighteen months. It’s also the most comprehensive. The public has caught partial views of the Department through reports on its complaint procedures, background check procedures, and investigations of allegations against Chief Jon Fehlman and Commander Sue Schulz. The LEMAP report is an across the board analysis of department management and operations. What does it tell us that we didn’t know already?

In some ways, not much. Many of the problems identified by LEMAP have already been identified in previous reports, the Guild’s no confidence statement, or in the Ostling v Bainbridge Island case. BIPD has inconsistent training requirements, inconsistent complaint procedures, a lack of clear rules in some areas, disconnect between rules and practice in others, low morale, and internal strife. There are new details to be sure—missing internal investigation files, officers hiding out to avoid calls, a case management system described as “primitive”--but the overall message is depressingly familiar. The source of these problems, as identified by LEMAP, is not news either. BIPD’s current culture is product of former Chief Fehlman who, according to the report, “rearranged and revoked numerous areas of responsibility which ultimately created confusion, cynicism, apathy and inconsistency within the agency.”

There is quite a bit that the LEMAP report can teach us, though, if we think about what it implies about our local governing system. It is clear from this report (and others before it) that we have a police department that, for years, has been largely ineffective at self-policing.  And the checks built into our political system to ensure responsibility and accountability at the BIPD have not been working. Examples:

Legal oversight. The city attorney’s job is to keep the city out of legal trouble. Despite the presence of full time council, and the city’s insurance company dispensing guidance about risk management, the Department engages in activity that puts the city at high and unnecessary risk. We know, from the LEMAP report, that BIPD engages in high risk practices (like use of force) without an accountability system in place, and some procedures are out of sync with best practices. Amazingly, officer training is still an identified problem even after the city was hit with a 1 million dollar judgment for its failure to train.

Fiduciary Responsibility. We have a City Council that has fiduciary responsibility for all aspects of the city’s operations. But it has failed to use this responsibility to monitor police spending. We know, from LEMAP, that the BIPD, in recent years, “operated in a fiscal silo” and “would routinely accelerate the burn rate of line item in surplus at the end of each year.” The Department is “plagued” with high amounts of overtime, seemingly without repercussion. The take home car policy is “very generous” and lacks meaningful limitations. An expensive Lexipol system, purchased in 2010, has gone unused for several years.

Managerial oversight. Under a council/manager form of government, the city manager is responsible for employee levels, performance, and oversight. We learn from LEMAP that evaluations of officers are not consistent (I am told, by a source in the BIPD, that Lieutenants were told to fudge evaluations to please the former city manager, which may explain why they are not done on a regular basis), shifts are understaffed, and the relationship of lieutenants to patrol officers is problematic. While our current city manager, Doug Schulze, shows encouraging signs of vigilance, oversight in principle does not mean oversight in practice.

So what to do? Hiring a terrific new Chief would be great, but can we trust it will be sufficient? The LEMAP report proves—if additional proof be needed—that even good police departments cannot police themselves and our current system of outside checks is not working. The solution: an independent civilian authority to monitor the police department, at least in some of its operations. This authority may take the form of an ombudsman, as it does in Spokane. It may take the form of a citizens’ group, as it does in Seattle. It may take the form of a review board, as it does in many cities, to review and monitor citizen complaints. Whatever form civilian oversight takes, it needs a few basic features: independence from the police department. Independence from city government. The ability to accept and track complaints. The authority to make and publicize honest and transparent findings that may be critical of the Department, along with policy recommendations.

Our police department is, as the LEMAP report says, in a period of “extreme transition.” We would be wise to take advantage of the situation, implement effective oversight and put some safeguards in place.

Link to LEMAP report here.