COLUMBIA — In his office, Columbia police Lt. John White's desk holds a notepad and a colorful folder. The first represents internal affairs investigations of the present and the second what White hopes is the future.
Currently, when a complaint about a police officer comes in, the notepad comes out. White enters the information into the Police Department's records system and jots it down on the pad as a backup.
This records system can't instantly generate detailed reports or provide an early warning about potentially troubled officers, White said.
That's where the folder figures in. It contains information about a software program that tracks statistics such as complaints and use-of-force incidents and automatically spits out a notice when an officer amasses a certain number.
Seven months after establishing a Professional Standards Unit to monitor the Police Department from within and make findings easily available to the public, the department hopes to replace the old system of tracking complaints with the software program. It would allow White instantly to produce statistical analyses that provide a picture of how police officers interact with the community.
White, who is one of two officers in the Professional Standards Unit, said the request for the software - IA Pro - is part of a culture shift within the department.
"We're trying to be as transparent and open as possible," he said. "For years, we didn't do a very good job of explaining what happened after the complaint was taken. ... We're trying to open up as much as we possibly can to show what we're doing and how we're doing it."
An April report examining the handling of 130 citizen complaints between 2005 and 2007 found that complaints by white citizens were 10 times more likely to be found valid than complaints by black citizens. The report also found that even when complaints by black citizens were found to be valid, officers found guilty of misconduct against black citizens were punished less severely than officers found guilty of misconduct against white citizens.
A citizen oversight committee, established in June 2007 by Mayor Darwin Hindman, recently recommended that police obtain software that tracks information about complaints and other performance measures.
Committee member Chris Egbert, a retired Columbia police captain, called the police's current method of tracking complaints on paper inefficient and said the data provided to the committee in the past has been "skimpy."
The committee also recommended in August that a citizen review board be set up to oversee the Police Department, including its handling of complaints. That would make it all the more important that police be able to provide the board, if it is established, with data, Egbert said.
Further complicating the issue in the past was the lack of a standard procedure for taking citizen complaints, White said, but that has been fixed by sending all complaints through the Professional Standards Unit.
"I think the problem we ran into before was that we had different criteria depending on what time or what shift you came in to make a complaint," he said. "We were horrible about that. ... Now that's all taken out."
Aaron Thompson, a consultant who has worked with the Police Department on internal reviews and diversity training and is also a sociology professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said getting a software program would be a positive step toward helping the department monitor itself.
"There's a greater chance that if people know they're part of an early warning system or a tracking system, then they'll have a greater chance of actually responding, if you will, in the correct manner," Thompson said.
The software would cost $10,000, and there would be a $2,000 per year maintenance fee, White said. However, the first year of maintenance would be free, he said.
City Manager Bill Watkins said he had talked with Police Department leadership about the software, and they had made the case that because IA Pro is unique, there shouldn't have to be a bid process, which would normally be required in awarding a city contract.
"I don't see a problem with that," Watkins said.
He said that Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner strongly recommended the software.
Funding possibilities include finding extra money in this year's or next year's budget or asking the City Council for an additional appropriation, he said.
It is unclear how soon the software might be purchased, but White said he hoped to have it by October.
IA Pro's Web site, iaprofessional.com, boasts of clients large and small, including the New York City and Los Angeles police departments and the Joplin Police Department in Missouri. White said he has talked to officers from many police departments about the software, but he first heard about it from his college roommate, who is now the internal affairs supervisor at the Fort Collins Police Department.