Web site rates local cops

April 18, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Jamaica Plain’s E-13 police officers are among thousands nationwide whose job performance can be rated by residents at a new web site called RateMyCop.com. Its motto is, “You Have the Right to Remain Informed.”

The California-based site drew fire from some police departments before it was even fully functional. But E-13 Police commander Capt. Christine Michalosky—one of the officers up for rating on the site—said she doesn’t oppose it, even if she isn’t thrilled by the idea.

“I don’t care what anyone says about me. I care about how I do my job,” Michalosky told the Gazette, adding, “I don’t see anything wrong with [the site]. I’m for free speech.”

“I think it will probably become more a place for people to vent,” Michalosky said. She noted that the Boston Police Department (BPD) has a formal complaint process available for any resident with a gripe. “I don’t believe in rumor-mongering,” she said.

No E-13 officers appear to have received any ratings yet.

But BPD Commissioner Ed Davis has received a negative rating and scathing commentary. BPD headquarters did not have immediate comment about the site or Davis’s rating for this article.

RateMyCop.com co-founder Gino Sesto told the Gazette that many departments automatically think the site will be filled with negative comments.

“That’s assuming officers are doing nothing but bad stuff all the time,” Sesto, a Culver City, Calif. resident, said in a phone interview. “[Police are] very defensive. A lot of departments are. I can understand why.”

The majority of new officer ratings on the site during a Gazette review last week were positive.

As for official police complaint processes, Sesto said their results are often confidential. “They might as well just throw it in the circular file,” he said.

He said he pledges to police departments, “If you make that [official complaint process] public and publish it on the Internet, I would shut my web site down.”

Since its debut in February, RateMyCop.com has drawn national media attention and some praise. A Los Angeles Times editorial last month said, “RateMyCop.com may be a crude device, but it’s a worthy one.”

The site also continues to draw complaints, including for a few instances where users posted the names of undercover officers. Sesto said those names were removed promptly.

The site uses a database of more than 120,000 names of police officers in departments nationwide obtained through public records requests. Only names and sometimes badge numbers are available, not non-public information such as home addresses.

The names are arranged alphabetically under various police departments, and the database is also searchable. The BPD is included in the database. So are other Boston-area departments, including the State Police and campus police at Boston College and Harvard University.

Some relatively well-known E-13 officers are in the database, including Community Service Officer Carlos Lara and auto investigator Mike Santry, who last year was voted JP’s best government official by Gazette readers.

Anonymous users can select an officer and then rate his or her job performance. There are three rating categories: “Authority,” “Fairness” and “Satisfaction.” The categories can be rated “poor,” “average” or “good.” The results are then totaled into an overall rating for the officer.

Users can also add written comments. The site warns users they can be turned in to the authorities if they “leave threatening or abusive comments.”

However, the harsh and apparently unsubstantiated comments about Davis on the site will stay up, Sesto told the Gazette. The comments essentially accuse Davis of ignoring complaints made about police officers in his previous job as chief of the Lowell Police Department. Such comments do not violate the site’s terms of service, Sesto said.

Besides the official database of officers, users can add other officers’ names themselves. Sesto acknowledged that he has no way to confirm whether user-added names are actual officers. “We’ll get complaints if they’re not,” he said.

RateMyCop.com is the first foray into web site operations for Sesto, a 37-year-old who works in advertising and as a part-time flight instructor. The idea for the site came as he and a friend discussed their recent experiences getting traffic tickets. It wasn’t a bitter discussion, Sesto said—in his case, the officer was polite, and he ultimately beat the ticket. It was the discussion itself that sparked the web site, he said.

“When people get a ticket, they tell a dozen people,” he said. The site, which Sesto runs with his fiancée, is just a larger way of having that discussion, he said.

RateMyCop.com has listed a couple of claims of serious police abuse, such as beatings, Sesto said. But it is mostly about traffic stops—probably the most common kind of police-citizen interaction.

“Officers who do their job well will receive the public attention they deserve. So will the dishonorable few who try to hide misconduct behind the power of their badge,” says the web site. Sesto emphasized the first part of that mission statement.

“We don’t want to be just a bashing-cops web site,” he said.

Sesto said he believes most users will be fair and honest, and most will have good experiences with officers.

“Everyone thinks they got a bum rap when they get a ticket,” but after reflection, usually admit to themselves, “Yeah, I deserve it,” Sesto said.

Some ratings and comments on the site for Arizona police officers reflect that.

“I was speeding and got a ticket that I did deserve…It was a crappy situation handled well,” wrote one user, praising the ticketing officer.

Another user praised an officer as “polite and good natured,” while also claiming, “He also smelled somewhat of cookies, which I think perhaps
could undercut his position of authority in other situations.”

Sesto said many of the early comments were posted by officers themselves, who were the first to know about the site. It is possible that some of the comments are police officers joking with each other.

Michalosky, who looked briefly at the site before speaking to the Gazette, said that local residents probably already have their own opinions about their police officers.

“I don’t think [locals] are going to be influenced by it,” she said of RateMyCop.com.

But, Sesto said, the need for such a site and the negative reaction by some departments reflects a disconnect between police and residents.

“It’s kind of sad because somewhere along the line, it became us against them,” Sesto said. “Cops don’t live in neighborhoods anymore that they patrol…They live in other neighborhoods for safety reasons. That’s pretty pathetic.”

But, while JP’s cops are up for rating, one local department is being spared—Sesto’s own.

Culver City police will not appear on the site, he said, describing a combination of caution and a desire to spare everyone extra press attention.

“If something were to happen, if we need to call the Culver City Police Department and they showed up an hour later…I wouldn’t want to put them under the microscope. I wouldn’t want to put us under the microscope,” Sesto said.