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Auditors tackle police-community relations

We’ve recently seen a spate of local government audits that look at ways to stop negative police-community events before they happen. A sampling:

In Washingon’s King County, the auditor noted that in the last five years, the county has paid $21 million in legal claims that are linked to Sheriff Office actions. Ideally, the county’s early intervention system, which seeks to improve officer performance, would seem to be a way to reduce law enforcement-community tensions.  But the audit, released at the end of January, found the program falls short of reaching its potential.

Some problems cited: The period used to track “concerning behavior” is too short – just 90 days, whereas best practices suggest a much longer look-back period would be better. In addition, alerts of problematic behavior have been handled inconsistently by commanding officers, with some of the potentially useful information collected by the system going unused.

In December, the Lawrence, KS, city auditor looked at the response of law enforcement to individuals with mental illness – a topic that is often in the headlines in many cities and counties around the country. The auditor’s recommendations are geared to helping the city’s new mental health squad do the best job it can in improving interactions between law enforcement and individuals with mental illness. The audit has generally positive comments to make about the city’s plans, but notes that clearer delineation of goals and objectives would be helpful and that the city could use a more comprehensive process for collecting and evaluating data about encounters. (This is a refrain we hear all the time, by the way.) Plans call for greater collaboration with city agencies that provide mental health services, but, as the audit says, “capacity for providing treatment and services remains uncertain.”

Several months earlier, in September, 2016, the Austin city auditor looked into the process that’s in place to handle citizen complaints about their interaction with police. The audit found barriers to filing complaints and inconsistency in the way they’re handled. “These issues may lead to a more negative perception of law enforcement and erode the public trust,” auditors said. The city’s Office of the Police Monitor, which was set up about 15 years ago, is designed to “promote mutual respect between the Austin Police Department and the community it serves,” but the audit noted that its ability to provide oversight of the complaint process is limited. The audit has many separate recommendations directed at the Police Monitor, the Chief of Police and the City Manager. These recommendations include calls for better oversight, better communication to the public, increased staff knowledge about handling complaints and improvements in data collection.

In addition, the San Jose Independent Police Auditor, along with the Mayor and other city officials and business CEOs, held a forum in late January to launch an 18-month campaign “to develop greater trust and better partnerships between law enforcement and San José residents in order to achieve a safer community.”

A plea to state and local government auditors: If you have audits coming up on the important topic of police-community relations, or would like us to feature audits that we missed, please let us know!


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