Printer Friendly

Citizen complaints: what the police should know.

Citizen complaints against police officers act as a barometer measuring the community's satisfaction with the police service they receive. The number and type of complaints filed against officers clearly indicate if problems exist. Citizen complaints can serve as quality control for police service because the citizens represent the customers who purchase police service with their tax dollars. Complaints demonstrate the need for improved training in certain areas, uncover problem employees, and identify areas of potential legal liability.

The manner in which police departments handle and resolve complaints influences community relations. Complaints reveal police activities that cause the most concern for community members. A community that perceives their concerns to law enforcement officials fall on deaf ears will negatively impact community support for the department. If the community feels that the police do not investigate their complaints fairly or that biased judgments usually result, citizens will view the police as opponents instead of as partners. Understanding and responding to citizen complaints remain important issues for police administrators.

Who Files Complaints?

Studies conducted in Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia observed the types of individuals who file complaints against the police. Although the complaints came from both sexes, many races, a variety of ages, and all socioeconomic groups, a profile developed for the person most likely to complain about police conduct. Nonwhite males under the age of 30 filed approximately three-quarters of the complaints against the police. Over one-half of the complainants were divorced or single and unemployed or blue-collar workers with at least one prior arrest. In most cases, individuals who filed complaints lived in the jurisdiction of the department complained against.(1) Studies in Canada found the same profile for individuals filing complaints against the police in that nation, as well.(2)

The young, unmarried, low-income, nonwhite male represents the profile of a citizen most likely to complain against the police. This person generally has the most contact with the criminal justice system, demonstrated by the fact that the majority of these complainants had prior arrests. A higher level of contact with the police results in a higher probability of unhappiness with the conduct of the police.

This fact underscores the importance of community policing efforts targeted at improving relations with youth, racial minorities, and those individuals in lower socioeconomic groups. The fact that most complainants live within the department's jurisdiction shows that the complaints signify local problems for the department. However, because many jurisdictions share the same types of complainants, perhaps a nationwide dissatisfaction with police service exists among this group.

Against Whom?

Similar to the typical person who complains about police conduct, the average officer complained against has the most contact with the public. Officers assigned to uniformed patrol duties received the most complaints. In the studies reviewed, the majority of officers who had complaints filed against them were white males - the majority of police officers in the nation.(3) As women and members of ethnic minority groups increase in numbers within the police profession, complaints against these groups probably will increase.

Even though all uniformed patrol officers have a high probability of receiving a citizen complaint, some officers' characteristics slightly elevate this chance. Officers under age 30, with less than 5 years of police experience and only a high school education suffer the greatest risk for receiving a complaint.(4) These facts illustrate the importance of maturity to perform the job functions of a law enforcement officer.

Generally less aggressive and more mature, older officers have learned to communicate with people through years of life experience. By trial and error, they have learned various ways to understand and effectively deal with various individuals. Seasoned officers have gained experience negotiating in various situations, and officers with over 5 years of police experience have learned to handle people in stressful situations. In many instances, when officers do not develop effective communication skills after 5 years, administrators might terminate them, or they might voluntarily leave their career in law enforcement.

Formal education in psychology, sociology, and communication help college-educated officers avoid many complaints. Their advanced education provides them with a better understanding of the world and their place in society. College campus life provides an excellent environment to learn interpersonal communication skills and experience cultural diversity. Officers possessing police work experience, maturity, and higher education appear better equipped to handle stressful situations without offending individuals.

Research demonstrates that officers' chances of receiving a complaint may increase if they work with a partner. Several studies have found that two-officer patrols receive a complaint more often than one-officer units.(5) This might stem from a sense of security officers feel when working with constant backup. An officer might talk tough to a suspect with a partner present to avoid appearing like a coward. If a citizen speaks aggressively to one of the officers, the partner may feel the need to defend the officer's reputation by snapping back at the citizen. Of course, pairing officers together could double the chance that someone in the unit will receive a complaint.

For What Reason?

Studies conducted in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Washington revealed citizens complain most about the police officer's verbal conduct. In each study reviewed for this article, approximately 50 percent of the complaints described rude or inappropriate statements made by an officer.(6) Interestingly, citizens appeared more concerned by how officers spoke to them than by what the officer specifically said to them.(7)

Many complainants accused the officer of using a gruff or condescending tone of voice. This clearly identifies a nationwide need for improved interpersonal communication training for police officers. Most department policies prohibit officers from cursing or using racially derogatory language, but regulating all behavior defined as rude remains difficult. Each citizen contact situation varies, and cultural differences may exist that cause citizens to misinterpret an otherwise innocent comment as a rude remark. Officers need to understand people and situations in order to comprehend how citizens will react to their statements.

About one-quarter of the complaints filed against police officers dealt with excessive force issues.(8) These complaints included off-duty uses of force as well as on-duty applications of force. Many off-duty uses of force involve criminal acts, such as bar fights or domestic battery situations. After excluding direct criminal acts, on-duty excessive force incidents involving arrest situations resulted in less than one-quarter of all complaints against the police. This reveals that excessive use of force by police officers while effecting an arrest represents a problem to address, but it does not appear as widespread as the media portrays. The last quarter of the complaints include additional unethical and nonviolent illegal conduct by the police both on duty and off duty.

Under What Circumstances?

Over one-half of the situations that result in a citizen complaint come from on-site interventions with police officers rather than a call dispatched from a citizen's report. A patrol officer uncovering suspicious or criminal behavior exemplifies such situations. In these incidents, officers may not appear as friendly as usual because they just witnessed illegal activity. The circumstances also do not provide the officer with time to mentally prepare for the encounter. In addition, the unexpected appearance of the police surprises the citizens and causes the resident to become overly sensitive to any statements or actions from the police. This factor might create the high proportion of complaints against two-officer units. Because of the added sense of safety and the extra pair of scanning eyes, more on-site situations might involve two-officer units.

A large percentage of complaint-producing incidents involve situations when the police contact complainants in front of their families or friends. The potential embarrassment from the officer's questioning or the possible arrest in front of loved ones causes citizens under these circumstances to become hypersensitive to what they consider rude behavior or excessive force. The offended citizen may worry more about damage to his social status when detained by the police in front of his girlfriend than if stopped alone.

The majority of complaint-producing incidents occurred within 1 or 2 miles of the complainant's home. Citizens may feel that the police disrupt the comfort and security of their homes when confronted in their own house, apartment complex, or neighborhood. Many individuals in inner-city communities view the police as outsiders and feel a confrontation near their home represents an invasion of their own turf. Incidents occurring near the proximity of their home also increase the chances of a friend or family member observing an arrest, again inciting subjects to defend their status.

Further research reinforces the fact that the majority of excessive force complaints stem from arrests at domestic battery calls. Police officers know that domestic disturbance calls can become extremely dangerous and may apply force quicker in these situations than on other calls. Because subjects have uninvited police officers in their homes in these situations, they may feel threatened and overly sensitive to anything the officers do or say. With the subject's family nearby, officers tell individuals how to conduct family business. Subjects might feel damage to their social status and power within the family.

Family members become distressed if an individual resists arrest, thus compelling police officers to use force. Normal and acceptable force can easily seem excessive to a civilian witnessing it applied to a family member. All of these factors form a situation in which officers must use tremendous tact and patience in order to remain professional.

How Are Complaints Resolved?

Surveys found that one-half of all Americans do not believe the police can investigate other police officers in an unbiased manner. As a result, politicians and community groups push for the use of civilian oversight committees and civilian review boards to handle citizen complaints. For the past decade, over one-half of major city police departments include some type of civilian involvement when handling citizen complaints.(9)

Yet, citizens in communities with a civilian review system do not appear to have more confidence in the manner in which departments handle citizen complaints. Studies analyzing several different civilian review systems revealed that citizens felt just as unsatisfied when a civilian review board handled their complaints as when the police handled their complaints.(10) Regardless of who investigates, records show that case dispositions vary little - both civilian and police review systems find the majority of complaints unsubstantiated.(11) Surprisingly, residents still prefer the idea of a citizen review system over the police investigation, and with this in mind, failing to respond to community desires can further destroy citizen confidence in the police.

Research shows that the majority of complaints filed against the police do not find the accused officer guilty.(12) Some of the complaint situations are cleared because the alleged police conduct never happened. A disgruntled citizen might have lied for various personal reasons. Other complaints are cleared because the complainant simply misinterpreted the legal and ethical behavior of the officer. Finally, many complaint situations lack physical evidence or unbiased witnesses to support the claims of the complainant.

Investigations substantiate less than one-third of the complaints regarding police verbal conduct,(13) partly because of the difficulty defining rude behavior. Acceptable comments in one situation may not be appropriate if made to another person in another situation. Disciplining officers can prove difficult simply because a citizen found their tone of voice or facial expression offensive during an encounter. However, because most complaints of inappropriate verbal behavior only result in minor disciplinary actions, such as issuing a letter of reprimand or making an apology to the citizen, these complaints carry a lower burden of proof.

Only a little more than one-tenth of excessive force complaints are substantiated.(14) Excessive force complaints can result in administrative punishments (e.g., suspension without pay, termination, or civil court action) and may even result in criminal charges because an excessive force complaint carries a much higher standard of proof than a verbal behavior complaint. A lack of unbiased witnesses can influence a case alleging excessive force. However, in extreme cases, physical evidence (e.g., cuts, bruises, missing teeth, and broken bones) exists to support the citizen's claims.

Complaints regarding unethical and nonviolent criminal activity by police officers are substantiated in over one-third of the cases.(15) Complainants can more easily prove this type of activity because it often involves other people, for example, dealing drags to a citizen, patronizing a prostitute, or taking a bribe. At the same time, these cases may be difficult to prove because police officers perform these illegal acts in secret and the witnesses - sometimes accomplices to the criminal act - may be reluctant to testify.

Even though investigations substantiate less than one-third of all complaints against police officers, it remains extremely important for police administrators to treat every complaint seriously until it is properly investigated. In doing so, administrators help to cultivate the public's trust and advance the ethical goals of the police profession.


Research on citizen complaints against the police highlights several areas of dysfunction between the police and the community. The research demonstrates that a misunderstanding exists between the police and young males from lower socioeconomic neighborhoods and also suggests a general lack of faith in the police by most ethnic minority groups, indicating a strong need for community policing efforts nationwide to repair these relationships. The community should view the police as their partners in the neighborhood, not as outsiders who are indifferent to their concerns.

Research shows the importance of interpersonal communication in police work. Police agencies should hire mature, educated officers with strong communication skills and provide further instruction and experience in communication techniques. Human relations and cultural diversity training help equip new officers with the tools to handle stressful situations.

Finally, research demonstrates that the age-old problems of police corruption and brutality still exist, although not as frequently as the media portray. Police agencies should attempt to understand the reality of these problems and handle them in a professional manner. By removing brutal officers from the public position they have abused and prosecuting corrupt officers for their crimes, the law enforcement profession will gain support from the community by demonstrating that the police are not above the law.

Police departments should handle every complaint from the community with concern and professionalism. Listening to citizen complaints shows the department what concerns exist within the community and also reveals how the community feels about their police service. By taking corrective action to reduce the causes of citizen complaints, police supervisors improve the quality of police service.


1 Allen Wagner, "Citizen Complaints Against the Police: The Complainant," Journal of Police Science and Administration 8 (1980): 247-252; James Hudson, "Police-Citizen Encounters that Lead to Citizen Complaints," Social Problems 18 (1970): 179-193; Wayne Kerstetter, Kenneth Rasinski, and Cami Heiert, "The Impact of Race on the Investigation of Excessive Force Allegations Against Police," Journal of Criminal Justice 24 (1975): 1-15.

2 Susan Watt, "The Future of Civilian Oversight of Policing," Canadian Journal of Criminal Justice 33 (1991): 347-362; Tammy Landau, "When Police Investigate Police: A View from Complainants," Canadian Journal of Criminal Justice 38 (1996): 291 -315.

3 Ibid., Wagner.

4 Ibid., Wagner.

5 Ibid., Wagner.

6 Albert Reiss, The Police and the Public (New Haven: Yale, 1971); David Griswold, "Complaints Against the Police: Predicting Dispositions," Journal of Criminal Justice, 22 (1994): 215-221; John Dugan and Daniel Breda, "Complaints about Police Officers: A Comparison Among Types and Agencies," Journal of Criminal Justice, 19 (1991): 165-171.

7 Angela Woodhull, Police Communication in Traffic Stops (Rochester, VT: Schenkman, 1993); and Ibid., Hudson; Reiss.

8 Ibid., Dugan and Breda; Griswold; Reiss.

9 Ibid., Griswold.

10 Ibid., Griswold.

11 Ibid., Landau.

12 Ibid., Landau.

13 Ibid., Griswold.

14 Ibid., Griswold.

15 Ibid., Griswold.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Johnson, Richard R.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Previous Article:Forging a police-probation alliance.
Next Article:Realtor-police partnership for safety.

Related Articles
Mothers take on the police.
Courtesy and police authority.
Police use of force examined in survey.
Internal affairs in the small agency.
Established: A Pattern of Abuse.
Getting Along with Citizen Oversight.
Citizen police academies: do they just entertain?
Accounting for police: as more Chicagoans complain about police abuse, more turn to the courts in frustration.
Restoring confidence.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters