Police complaint procedure

How To File A Police Complaint

by Oct 8, 2020

This year has seen an unprecedented wave of police violence, lack of accountability from police departments, and massive outcries of social injustice at the hands of police departments all across the country.

And while the protests, legal actions, and media coverage have done a good job of shining a spotlight on these issues, many people are not aware of one one of the simplest tools citizens have to voice their experience and anger regarding police misconduct: filing a complaint.

What Is A Police Complaint?

Aside from turning to social media, the other option a victim of police abuse has is to file a complaint with the offending officer’s department. The process is simple: you can fill out a complaint form provided by the department and file it.

The department is obligated to initiate an internal affairs disciplinary investigation. If they find wrongdoing, you will be notified with a simple letter stating that the complaint is “sustained” and the officer will be disciplined in some way. If the complaint is not sustained, you will get a letter stating something to that effect and nothing more.

As you can probably imagine, the vast majority of complaints are not sustained. Most of those who file complaints are also arrestees, thus their perspectives are rarely given any weight.

The only sustained complaints are those with some sort of other evidence, such as video footage or truly independent witnesses. Of those sustained complaints, even fewer officers lose their jobs as a result. More often than not, they may take a few days off and they are put right back out on the streets. The findings will remain in their secret personnel file, known only by the officer’s superiors and his counsel.

Is Filing A Police Complaint Worthwhile?

Filing a police complaint does come with some potential risks. The offending officer will know who you are and will likely return to policing your streets, so there is a small possibility of retaliation. If the officer was willing to violate your rights before, it is possible he or she will be even more willing to do so after returning to work.

Additionally, police complaints are investigated by other officers in their internal investigation department, rendering the whole process suspect from the onset.

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Your Complaint May Help Others

Even though the process may sound unfair to the person making the complaint, as a criminal defense lawyer, I find such complaints to be extremely helpful. A complaint may not help you in your particular matter, but it will be of significant help in holding officers accountable in later cases.

The key is an officer’s personnel file. If there are complaints regarding dishonesty and/or excessive use of force, whether or not they are sustained, I will be able to get them through a legal motion to disclose an officer’s personnel file.

You may have the opportunity to testify about your incident in someone else’s trial and help render the officer’s testimony useless. When an officer’s testimony is useless, he becomes useless to the department.

Another possibility, although admittedly rare, is the sheer accumulation of complaints against a particular officer might cause the department to dismiss the officer for fear of incurring liability through potential lawsuits. Or, the department may more closely investigate future complaints if an officer has an extensive history of them. Either way, police complaints, taken as a whole, can be an extremely useful tool in holding officers accountable.

When Should I File My Complaint?

If you are considering filing a complaint, you should first discuss it with your attorney. By law, generally speaking, you have one year from the incident to file.

Keep in mind that it behooves you to wait until any criminal matter you may be involved in is resolved. As any criminal defense attorney can tell you, your primary concern is to protect your right to remain silent while your criminal matter is pending.

In my practice, I offer consultation and assistance in filing complaints. And, in the right case, I can file a lawsuit against the city or county. If you are the victim of police abuse, contact me to discuss your options.