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ACLU: Survey Shows Some Police Depts. Make It Hard to File Complaints Against Officers

by Hugh McQuaid | Dec 4, 2012 5:13pm
(0) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Civil Liberties, Equality, Immigration, Law Enforcement, Public Safety

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(Corrected 11:23 a.m. Wednesday) A survey released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union found that Connecticut police departments can make filing a complaint against an officer a difficult process and in some cases they discouraged inquiries about the process through intimidation.

The poll was based on a phone survey of 104 Connecticut law enforcement agencies, of which 92 were municipal police departments and 12 were State Police barracks. Volunteers phoned the departments during the months of January and February and asked 10 different questions.

According to the ACLU, the survey results highlight a resistance to accepting civilian complaints about police and in some cases employees attempted to intimidate callers who were asking about the complaint process. The group says the study reveals a need to establish statewide standards for police complaints.

Of the municipal departments, 23 percent told callers they had no complaint form for residents to fill out. Sixty-one percent said they would not accept anonymous complaints. Around two-thirds of the complaint forms posted online warn residents they can be prosecuted for filing a false complaint, something the ACLU says serves as a deterrent to legitimate complaints.

The survey further reports that almost half of the forms posted online by municipal police departments require a complainant to sign a sworn statement, a requirement the ACLU says law enforcement experts seek to deter.

Of all the departments surveyed, only about a third made it clear that a person filing a complaint would not be reported to immigration officials. Meanwhile, 15 percent stated that they definitely would report a complainant to immigration.

“We’ve been hearing from too many people who have had difficulty filing complaints with their local police departments,” David McGuire, the ACLU staff attorney who supervised the study, said in a statement.

“We rely on the police for our safety, and we’re grateful for their service. But we also entrust police officers with extraordinary authority, including the power to use deadly force, and this must be balanced by accountability, with a clear and reliable method for civilians to register their concerns about police conduct,” McGuire said.

The survey notes that the responses the volunteer callers got from police departments varied and their answers were reflective of the police employee who happened to pick up the phone rather than the entire department. On the other hand it notes that a citizen looking to actually file a complaint could also encounter the same employee.

South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed, who serves as legislative liaison for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said some of the concerns outlined in the report are related to things outside of the control of police departments.

For instance, the report recommends imposing no time limits for filing a complaint. The ACLU argues that there’s no rational argument for putting a deadline on filing a complaint against an officer. Reed said that’s not true. For some departments, their officers’ contracts prevent them from being sanctioned for incidents that occurred after a certain amount of time has passed.

“In some cases where if the complaint isn’t made within five days, they can’t investigate it. I know that sounds crazy but these things have been worked into collective bargaining agreements,” he said.

Reed said his department makes it relatively easy to file complaints. Brochures are provided at the station and officers are instructed to help complainants fill out the forms if they need assistance.

But Reed pushed back against the ACLU’s general position that there should be few, if any, barriers to making a complaint against an officer. Complaints set in motion a process that could end up jeopardizing an officer’s career and not all complainants are necessarily honest, he said.

“I know it’s hard to believe but there are times people actually make things up and say an officer did something he didn’t do,” he said.

Reed said that’s part of the reason many cops have come around to the idea of having cameras in their cars, a position they initially resisted. In practice, recordings of incidents often exonerate officers of false accusations, he said.

In the report, the ACLU included some quotes it received from police employees in response to specific questions. It gave examples of both problematic answers and those the group thought conformed with best practices.

For example, callers asked police departments whether an undocumented resident would be reported to immigration officials if they filed a complaint about an officer. Answers varied.

“[We would] take them into custody, call ICE [and] deport them,” someone from the Middletown department answered, in a quote the ACLU highlighted in red.

“[Illegal immigrants] have the same rights as anyone else with regard to law enforcement,” a Willimantic Police Department employee answered, getting high marks from the group.

A New Britain police employee answered the question with another question: “Are you illegal?”

The report said that type of questioning deters undocumented people from filing complaints against police and creates a class of individuals with no recourse against abuse by law enforcement officials.

Nonetheless, the survey reports that an employee of one police department likened the process of taking a complaint against an officer from an illegal immigrant to a burglar suggesting a that a police officer was being rude by stopping him during a break-in.

The report references a federal investigation into the East Haven Police Department, which found that officers were engaging in a pattern of discrimination against Latinos. The investigation led to the arrests of four East Haven officers on federal charges, and the city’s mayor made matters worse by offering an off-the-cuff comment about eating tacos in response to a question about what the city could do for the Latino community.

In part because of that high-profile case, the state is already taking steps to address some of the concerns outlined in the report, specifically when it comes to complaints about racial discrimination by police.

Earlier this year, the legislature passed a bill which strengthened existing legislation requiring police departments to report traffic stop data so the state can analyze it for evidence of racial profiling. Part of that law requires an advisory group working with Central Connecticut State University to develop standardized methods for the collecting racial profiling complaints.

“I think we all agree there ought to be a non-threatening process for doing this,” Michael P. Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s chief criminal justice adviser, said.

While the group’s work is focused upon complaints based on race, Lawlor said the legislature could easily apply the same principles more generally if they chose. He said many of the concerns voiced in the report are common and “call out for some uniformity.”

“If the legislature wants to mandate a one-size-fits-all thing, that’s fine too,” he said.

Reed said that it’s beneficial to the police profession when departments act based upon a uniform standard. But he said the chiefs association encourages lawmakers to look to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council rather than passing legislation, which can be left up to interpretation.

Reed said he understood why there would be concerns about the process of filing a complaint.

“Cops take care of cops in a lot of situations. It’s tough to take a complaint about another officer,” he said, adding that police administrators hope the leadership they’ve hired encourages officers to take complaints seriously.

Editor’s note: This report is updated to reflect a quote that was wrongly attributed to the Milford Police Department. It should have been attributed to the Middletown Police Department.

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