"I get paid to do nothing," he said. "Why am I complaining? I'm not in harm's way. I don't deal with needles and bullets. It ain't that bad. But I hate it."

The fallout from Videogate exemplifies the Police Department's shadow discipline system. After thousands of hours of internal investigations and 50 hours of attention by the Police Commission, all the city has to show for itself is a still-pending $20 million lawsuit, still-delayed commission hearings, and seven officers who are still on ice as clerks earning combined annual salaries of more than $850,000 plus benefits.

I'll set aside the question of whether it's wise for police to produce inside-joke "morale" videos many saw as racially and sexually offensive. (Hint: It's stupid.) And I'll put off the question of whether a mayor and a police chief should handle an issue of police prudence, taste, and sensitivity with a media campaign and vast internal affairs investigation worthy of New York's 1971 Serpico hearings. (They made a medium-sized problem much bigger.)

And, notwithstanding Videogate, it's true that there are plenty of other cases where officers should be taken off the street. The public doesn't want hothead or racist beat cops, after all.

I'll focus instead on whether we want cops to be subject to an ad hoc shadow system of internal discipline that squanders millions of tax dollars each year. Many exiled cops would better serve the public by patrolling, rather than wasting away at desk jobs. Yet there's no system in place, other than management's say-so, to determine that officers' offenses are sufficient to make them a danger to the public. So the system becomes open to charges that it's a tool for retaliation by supervisors.

There has apparently been no systematic analysis of whether the Videogate cops would actually endanger the public if they were put back on the streets. For their own part, the officers believe their desk jobs are punishment for embarrassing the chief and suing the department.

I asked outgoing Chief Fong last week whether she could explain her decision to keep these officers for four years in clerical positions.

It's a question whose importance goes beyond Videogate. The Police Commission has a backlog of 70 cases, some of which go back many years. The police Office of Citizen Complaints investigates 1,000 allegations per year. With such a huge backlog, high cop salaries, and pressing need for cops on the beat, there should be an explicit protocol for determining which officers are street-safe, so some might be sent back on patrol while awaiting the results of their disciplinary cases. "This is a human resources issue, and we must respect confidentiality," Fong said, regarding the exiled Videogate cops.

Are there specific guidelines or procedures for determining whether an officer should be kept away from the public and in a clerical position? "Every situation is different, and we have to evaluate it given the facts," she said. "We handle every situation individually according to protocol."

What is the protocol? "We assess every situation on a case-by-case basis."

I spoke with Fong at a Police Commission meeting last week, where Sparks had just announced she was forwarding to the mayor the names of three candidates to replace the current chief.

Let's hope the new boss has the guts to end the wasteful, arbitrary system of keeping wayward cops on ice.

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