S.F.P.D. Officers Finally Have E-Mail, But Department Still Lags in Tech

For the first time in history, San Francisco police officers can hand a crime witness a business card and say, “If you hear or think of anything else, please send me an e-mail.”

San Francisco's finest may have leaped out of the Bronze Age earlier this summer when officers were given their first-ever official e-mail addresses. But thanks to the byzantine workings of San Francisco government, it may be quite some time before the SFPD catches up with the age of information.

Consider another scenario where lack of technology hinders police work. A local hood shoots a corner-store clerk. A squad car rolls up to a man matching the perp's description. Unlike other city police departments across America, San Francisco cops can't pull up a mugshot or other key crime information on a laptop.

“If [the suspect] says, 'I'm Joe Smith,' and can answer every question correctly, officers can't detain them,” says Susan Giffin, chief information officer at the SFPD. “Identifying people at the scene of the crime with a mugshot is critical. It's critical for officer safety, and it's critical for detaining people. But we can't look at mugshots.”

This is hardly sci-fi: Database-linked wireless access is standard issue in modern police departments. It's useful for database background checks to figure out who's who in domestic-violence calls and other situations where cops must make quick, well-informed life-or-death decisions.

Another tech gap is slightly less dangerous, but more obviously bizarre. “They don't have cellphones,” says Giffin, who was hired nine months ago after working as director of IT marketing for Cisco Systems. “If they're working on a gang incident, everybody else [involved] has a cellphone and calls each other to tell what's happening, and our officers don't have cellphones. It's … it's … it's just crazy.”

There are signals of hope. That Giffin feels comfortable expressing her frustration in public suggests that Chief Greg Suhr backs her. She even has funding for positions designated to help create a departmentwide database, so that officers no longer have to photocopy, fax, and carry paper documents from file room to file room. She's seeking federal grant money to further the project. But it's no knock on her zeal and expertise to guess that she'll fail to improve San Francisco police technology to the level that officers achieve peak effectiveness.

The featherbedding culture of the San Francisco Police Department will see to it that Giffin is frustrated. Also in her way: a City Hall funding process that listens mostly to mau-mauers, and a city bureaucracy dedicated to ass-covering.

Part of the reason the SFPD got e-mail 15 years behind the rest of the world, won't get wireless mugshot access in the near future, and will likely spend years without modern tools to protect San Franciscans is that some members of the agency's tech staff don't have the relevant technology skills.

In a city full of unemployed tech-heads? How could this be? Easy: Seats meant for technicians are instead kept warm by cops.

“We still have very many sworn members who are trying to do technology jobs. But putting in a data warehouse is a challenging task,” Giffin says. The way the SFPD has traditionally functioned, “if you need tech work done, you have no special tech funding, and so you have sworn officers doing it themselves. If you have a broken printer, you have an officer who took some classes, and he fixes the printer. That's the way it's been.”

Part of the department's “technical” staff is made up of sworn police officers earning six-figure salaries and inhabiting desk jobs that cops consider sinecures reserved for officers who don't want to be, or shouldn't be, on the street.

There's hardly a politician in San Francisco willing to risk cops' wrath by calling for the abolition of this uniformed Aeron chair brigade. And there's insufficient money to take the politically safe route and hire enough technicians to work alongside ineffective deskbound police.

In October 2000, Claire Joyce Tempongko called police for the sixth time in 18 months, begging for protection from her violent boyfriend. He killed her after the final call. From that scandal emanated studies, hearings, and a government pledge to at last complete a 1970s-era project to build a Justice Information System, given the acronym JUSTIS. It was supposed to ensure effective tracking of data among police, the DA, probation workers, and the county jail.

In February 2010, I wrote about a stinging report describing how the city wasted $20 million dithering over the project [“Thirteen Years and $20 Million Later, City Still Trying to Computerize Justice Records,” The Snitch, 2/5/10]. Plans had been launched, abandoned, restarted, then allowed to languish as SFPD brass repeatedly gave the brush-off to the city's computerization team. Recently the city jails became the first to install the system. Giffin says that police may or may not have their own part of it up and running in January. (Last year, the department announced it would be completed this June.)

JUSTIS, in short, is a civic joke.

What's not funny is that the closer the SFPD is to being an information black hole, the harder it is to tell when it's not doing its job.

During the past couple of years, for instance, San Francisco police have investigated only about a third of reports of physical and financial abuse against elders. “If they're only investigating a third of the cases, and reported cases represent only one out of five incidents on average, that's a really low percentage,” says Prescott Cole, attorney for the nonprofit California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, “and if you're a predator, this is more fun than playing the lottery. You're going to win. And win. And win. And nobody's going to hold you to it.”

This lamentable statistic comes from the just-released “Comprehensive Report on Family Violence in San Francisco,” a compilation of data about law enforcement performance in addressing abuse of children, the elderly, and intimate partners. To gather such basic law enforcement data, a city staffer working for the Family Violence Council, a division of San Francisco's Department on the Status of Women, spent much of a year haggling with police and other agencies. I asked police spokesman Albie Esparza about the report. “The Investigators investigate these cases as they come,” he wrote in an e-mail response. “As for the low numbers, I don't have any information on that.”

This sort of data should be accessible to everyone, including journalists, policymakers, and police department staffers.

During recent years, frustrated public officials have funded eight major studies of SFPD operations and functions. Results, and limp pledges of reform, typically come out long after popular concern has subsided.

Here's another way to spend money: Let Giffin hire enough skilled staff to fix our police data-blindness problem. “The fact that officers can't search on every detail [of a crime] from their patrol cars is a giant, bonehead thing,” she says.

View the Family Violence Council report.

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