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Thursday, June 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Question Of Integrity

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

ALTHOUGH OFFICERS flinch, major urban police departments find it necessary to test their honesty.

Police departments that secretly tempt their officers to break the law say the practice is a necessary - if admittedly unpopular - tool to help ensure officer honesty.

The practice, called "integrity testing," was one of a dozen new procedures, announced Tuesday by Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, aimed at reviving public confidence in a department rocked by recent allegations of wrongdoing.

The dilemma faced by Stamper's department is not unique. Many large metropolitan police organizations have adopted integrity testing.

And internal affairs investigators in several of those cities say such testing works.

"It is extremely effective," said Charles Campisi, chief of the Internal Affairs Bureau for the New York Police Department.

So effective, in fact, that his bureau runs more than 1,000 operations against officers every year with only a tiny handful of prosecutions or disciplinary actions in a department with more than 45,000 sworn officers.

"Nobody likes to be monitored or watched. And while the rank-and-file may see the tests as unnecessary, I believe they think it is a good investigative tool, a way of getting at that small percentage of people who shouldn't be wearing a badge," Campisi said.

The Seattle Police Department, and Stamper's five-year administration of it, was shaken earlier this year by allegations that a veteran homicide detective stole $10,000 from a crime scene in 1996.

Other officers - including at least one internal affairs investigator - knew about the alleged theft but didn't act. The chief drew even more criticism when he did not discipline any of the officers.

That incident led Mayor Paul Schell to appoint a special panel to review how the department polices itself; its report is due in August. And it led Stamper to the 12-point plan he announced Tuesday.

The decision to target suspected problem officers with integrity tests is in keeping with the direction of many other metropolitan departments. Of six departments contacted - New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, San Diego and Salt Lake City - only Salt Lake did not regularly perform such tests.

Still, Lt. Steve Diamond, a 37-year officer who oversees internal affairs in the Salt Lake Police Department, acknowledged the department has used undercover sting operations to snare dishonest officers in the past.

"But I don't like them," said Diamond, who heads the Internal Affairs Division. "They presume everybody is dishonest."

Stamper said the Seattle department would give those suspected dishonest officers an "opportunity to demonstrate his or her character when tempted."

In San Diego, where Stamper was an assistant chief before taking the job here five years ago, Internal Affairs Lt. Chris Ball said integrity "sting operations" are run only "when we've got very, very specific information regarding an officer."

Lt. Loren Boydstun, who oversees Internal Affairs in the Denver Police Department, said his department resorts to tempting an officer only when there is substantial and reliable evidence of a problem.

His concern is that the use of such tactics could backfire. "The reputation for internal affairs is bad enough without officers thinking that you're unfairly and unreasonably targeting them," he said. "They might prove even less willing to cooperate."

That is less of a concern in huge police departments like New York and Chicago. They both perform random integrity testing, essentially trolling for dishonest officers without any real targets.

In Chicago, for example, an undercover officer might offer a bribe during a traffic stop.

"We put cops in the position where they have to make a right choice," said Patrick Camden, the Chicago Police Department's deputy director of news affairs. "In most cases, they do."

In New York, the department uses a sophisticated computer database to tailor its traps. "Then we give the officers working there the opportunity to follow the rules and the law," said NYPD's Campisi. "Or not."

While integrity testing is uniformly distasteful to rank-and-file officers, many have learned to live with it.

"Our rank and file were more disappointed that guys they work with would (break the law) than they were in the department for running these operations," said Bill Nolan, president of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police. "We tell them now that Internal Investigations will be running sting operations and that if you're doing something wrong, you're going to get nailed."

For officers who complain too loudly, added John Quigley, a spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department, "the real question becomes whether it's their job to protect (bad) officers."

The flip side, though, is that an officer's suspicion that he's been set up can lead to paranoia. "We had a guy voucher three pennies he found in the back of his squad car," Quigley said.

Some officials in those cities contacted were surprised at another of Stamper's reforms - that allegations of corruption or serious criminal wrongdoing by officers will automatically be referred to the FBI.

They were astonished the department was willing to concede what has traditionally been a fundamental prerogative of a police department - the ability to take care of its own dirty laundry.

"You mean they're doing this without even some federal element to the crime?" asked Diamond of Salt Lake City. "I've never heard of anything like that before."

"That seems like a bit of an over-reaction," said Quigley, the public affairs officer in Atlanta.

While Campisi declined to second-guess the decision, he pointedly said the NYPD does its own internal investigations even in

extremely sensitive cases like the brutal in-custody assault on Haitian immigrant Abner Louima - which so far has resulted in federal civil rights convictions against two New York officers.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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