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Citizen complaint policy.

What should law enforcement agencies do if a citizen levels charges of serious misconduct against their officers? How should the officers involved react? What can departments expect during the Federal civil rights investigations that may ensue?

These questions may seem somewhat remote and theoretical until your department faces such a complaint. Then, these and a myriad of related questions instantly take on paramount importance. Because charges of serious misconduct may affect agencies profoundly--perhaps even resulting in calls for a change in command--department administrators need to institute procedures for dealing with these types of complaints before they occur. With effective policies in place, departments minimize the negative impact of any ensuing investigation, restore a sense of goodwill within their communities by demonstrating a sincere desire to solve the problem, and accelerate the process of recovery.

Developing a Policy

When developing a civil rights violations policy, departments need to ensure, beyond a doubt, that adopted procedures are consistent with Federal constitutional standards. Further, the policy must effectively balance the legitimate interests of the community, the department, and the officer(s) involved. Once the department establishes the procedures, both the agency and its personnel must adhere to the policy and act according to set guidelines.

Because the image that a law enforcement agency portrays directly affects public perception of the department, administrators should also ensure that any complaint policy includes press and public relations strategies. An agency can actually gain public support by handling misconduct cases professionally, thus creating a positive perception in the public's mind. To accomplish this, agencies should provide a positive climate for relations between the department and the community through effective and accurate public information and education programs.

Additionally, administrators should continually work to cultivate a professional relationship with members of the news media. When reporters inquire about a specific complaint, administrators should limit responses to actions the department is taking to complete any internal investigation. When talking to the press directly after an incident, administrators should avoid blindly defending the officer(s) involved or the department. Likewise, they should not talk "through the press" to condemn the allegations. Instead, administrators should wait for factual information uncovered during the investigation and then defend the accused and the department from any unsubstantiated complaints or allegations. Most importantly, administrators should keep the news media and the public informed on actions being taken by the department to correct any factors that contributed to the incident.


A strong commitment to discipline should complement the department's citizen complaint policy. Of course, the need for discipline transcends any one incident, but a sound code of conduct will prove invaluable in restoring morale within departments should such complaints occur. In this sense, discipline must be a full-time commitment, and administrators should ensure that supervisory line officers stress acceptable codes of behavior to subordinates on a regular basis.

An effective discipline policy includes:

* Proper recruiting and selection of officers

* Adequate training and retraining

* Publicized rules of ethics and conduct

* Consistent leadership and supervision

* Coaching and counseling

* Regular performance evaluations

* Prompt corrective action against inappropriate attitudes or conduct.

Even apparently minor deterioration in discipline among officers may lead to serious problems for a department.

A study in a large midwestern agency, where 756 complaints were alleged in 1988 and 1989, identified 29 officers who were involved in nearly one-half of the allegations. The study further identified common traits among these offending officers, including poor report writing and use of authoritarian, unconciliatory, and demeaning language when dealing with citizens. In addition, these officers generally exhibited an excessive focus on muscle building, hid behind mirror sunglasses when dealing with citizens, and routinely carried two sets of handcuffs.(1) If administrators had detected early signs of declining discipline among these officers (each of whom had at least nine complaints against them) and had acted to correct the problems, then perhaps complaints of serious misconduct could have been avoided.

Use of Force Report

Fortunately, agencies have several means to monitor the actions of sworn personnel. One of tremendous potential value is the use-of-force report. This confidential report, which should be used only as an internal administrative instrument, provides valuable information impacting upon officer conduct.

The wide range of potential problem areas that use-of-force reports can help agencies identify include:

* Training deficiencies

* Problem assignments, activities, or locations

* Potential liability situations

* Unidentified causes of confrontation and

* Misinterpretation/misapplication of policy.

By compiling statistical information from these reports, agencies can work to improve the actual and perceived conduct of officers.


Those of us in law enforcement maintain a trust with the citizens we serve and protect. When officers betray that trust, the effects can be devastating, not only within the department but also within the community. Residual loss of public support may continue to harm the department long after the specific incident is forgotten.

When a citizen lodges a complaint, the agency must make a good faith effort to identify and correct the problem, preferably before Federal authorities initiate an investigation. Administrators should thoroughly investigate misconduct complaints, even though information uncovered may be used later against the officer(s) or the department. Although a well-conducted investigation may point to the need for changes in inadequate policies and procedures, the positive impact will outweigh any potential negative consequences.

No department enjoys internal investigations. However, where allegations of misconduct exist, law enforcement managers must uncover the truth. An established complaint policy helps an agency to not only correct any factors that led to the allegation (if the charge is founded) but also to maintain public confidence in law enforcement and enhance recovery within the department.


1 Recommendations of the task force on the use of force, Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, January 1991, page 45.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Point of View; merits of complaint policies in law enforcement
Author:Ross, Rickard A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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