Police Complaints Standards Are Necessary
Have you ever been pulled over, detained, or arrested by a police officer? Probably not, but plenty of students have. While few of these experiences are enjoyable, the vast majority of the time, the police officer involved follows proper procedure and does his or her job well. But on rare occasions, police officers harass citizens, selectively ignore facts or eyewitness accounts in a case or target individuals based on their race or sexual orientation. And in these cases, an easy and understandable police complaint process is necessary.
Unfortunately, this does not currently exist in Connecticut. A recent study published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut entitled "Protect, Serve, and Listen: Accepting Civilian Complaints at Connecticut Police Departments" has demonstrated that the police complaint process in Connecticut has a lot of room for improvement. (In the interest of full disclosure, I serve on the board of directors, but the opinions stated in this article belong to me, not the organization). Lawmakers should set reforming this process as a high priority during this year's legislative session.
An easy and accessible complaint process is an incredibly important part of maintaining public support for the police. If there is no way for citizens to bring attention to wrongdoings by misbehaving police officers, the reputation of the entire police department may suffer, as may the reputation of police in general. The need for a strong complaint process is widely accepted by civil libertarians and law enforcement alike. Major police organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police publish best practices and recommendations for how to run an effective process.
Unfortunately, in Connecticut there are wide discrepancies in how police departments deal with citizen complaints. The ACLU-CT focused its investigation on certain factors that make it harder to file a complaint. Things like refusing anonymous or third-party complaints, requiring sworn statements, warning of prosecution for inaccurate or false statements, threatening to contact immigration authorities, and requiring parents to submit statements on behalf of victims under the age of 18. They contacted a total of 104 law enforcement agencies, including the 92 municipal police departments and the 12 state police barracks. In case you were wondering, they did not include university police departments or agencies supervised by resident state troopers, so we don't have any information on the UConn or Mansfield complaint processes.
Some police departments are already performing very well, and implement little or none of these barriers to making complaints. Others are incredibly restrictive, and make an effort to dissuade individuals from filing complaints against their officers. For example, the Derby Police Department told the ACLU-CT "an anonymous complaint will hold no weight." The East Hampton Police Department stated, "The department's first concern is addressing the complaint, no matter who filed it." The latter approach is preferred not only by common sense, but also by many police organizations and the United States Department of Justice.
Perhaps even more surprising than the inconsistencies in complaint processes is the fact that some departments seem to have no process in place at all. When ACLU-CT volunteers called the Windsor Police Department, they were told, "There is no real written procedure on how to take a complaint." A police officer from Stamford said, "No one knows what the policy and procedure for an investigation is." Without an established and formalized process to address complaints against officers, it is very possible for legitimate complaints to get lost in the shuffle and never reach the appropriate authority.
The ACLU-CT concludes its report by recommending the State of Connecticut to establish a set of standards and best practices for all police departments to follow. This reform is not only common sense, it's sorely needed. With scandals like racial profiling by East Haven officers in recent memory, standardizing the police complaint process would go a long way in restoring Connecticut citizens' trust in law enforcement.
**Editor's Note: This article was originally published Tuesday, January 22 but did not upload properly to the website. We fixed the error on a later date.
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