HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

Citizen Review
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The civilian Board of Police Commissioners has its own investigative staff, called the Office of the Chief Investigator (OCI), with two civilians and eleven police investigators.22 The OCI is responsible for receiving and investigating non-criminal citizen complaints, although it only investigates some of the complaints received, allowing supervisors in the involved unit or precinct to conduct their own investigations in some cases.23 The OCI and precinct misconduct investigations are reviewed and approved by the Board of Police Commissioners. A complainant may "appeal" if he or she believes there was an error or omission in the investigation. Hearings are not provided for, and the OCI does not usually make policy recommendations to the department, although it is permitted to do so. Detroit's procedures are somewhat unusual, because civilians on the board are allowed to impose discipline on officers.24

Citizens can complain by letter, phone, in person or through a friend at any precinct, bureau, section or unit of the police department, or with the OCI directly, according to the OCI. According to activists, however, complainants are oftendissuaded by officers from filing complaints. It also appears local stations have a certain amount of discretion regarding which complaints they pass to the OCI.

Activists also claim that the process is generally too informal, with the complainant receiving nothing in writing when the complaint is initially filed by phone or mail (if filed in person, the complainant receives a copy of the complaint) or as the investigation progresses or ends, from either OCI or the Internal Affairs Division. This is confirmed by IAD, which told Human Rights Watch that it has no standardized complaint form and does not always inform complainants about the conclusion of an investigation, but it does contact the complainant at the outset of an investigation.25

According to its 1995 annual report, 901 citizen complaints were made against the police during 1995, up from 819 in 1994; 710 in 1993; and 693 in 1992.26 Between 1992 and 1995, citizen complaints rose 23 percent, while the police force grew by approximately 2.5 percent.27

During 1995, there were 281 "force" allegations. A force complaint involves the use, or threatened use, of force. Since officers are allowed to use force appropriately, the definition does not necessarily mean "excessive" or "unnecessary" force is alleged. The annual report states that 281 force allegations were closed during the year (apparently leaving no backlog), and seven were found to have involved "improper conduct."28 This is a 2.5 percent sustained rate on force complaints.

If OCI receives a complaint it considers serious, it will pass the complaint to IAD. Technically, the OCI can monitor IAD investigations that began with an OCI complaint, but IAD often investigates without OCI's knowledge.29 If a civil lawsuit is filed against a police officer, alleging misconduct that would fall under OCI's mandate, OCI may receive a request from the city's Law Department for informationto defend the city, if an OCI investigation has already taken place. Otherwise OCI does not receive notification and no investigation is initiated.30

The OCI chief investigator acknowledges that precinct investigations are not of the same quality as OCI's.31 He reported that the OCI was working on creating an "at risk" database to identify and monitor officers with repeated complaints, yet as of October 1997, no such database was being utilized.32 The acting chief inspector cited "computerization problems" to explain why the "at-risk" system was not functional.

Then-OCI chief investigator Thomas Eder told Human Rights Watch in August 1995 that Detroit did not have a major police abuse problem. He stated that, more and more, communities were working with the police, and that those making complaints are "not part of the community in a positive way."33 This is a troubling statement, coming from the individual tasked with overseeing investigation of such complaints in an unbiased manner.34

22 Interview with Thomas Eder, then-chief investigator, August 16, 1995 and acting Chief Investigator Odson Tetreault, October 24, 1997.

23 The Internal Affairs Division investigates possibly criminal misconduct.

24 August 17, 1995 letter from the OCI to Human Rights Watch stating one of the duties of the board is to "act as final authority in imposing or reviewing discipline of employees of the Police Department."

25 Telephone interview, Lt. Williams, IAD, August 16, 1995.

26 City of Detroit, Board of Police Commissioners, Annual Report: 1995, pp. 3 and 6. The 1996 annual report was not available as of late September 1997.

27 Ibid, p. 13.

28 Ibid, p. 8.

29 Telephone interview with Lt. Williams, August 16, 1995 and interview with Tom Eder, OCI, August 16, 1995.

30 Telephone interview with Odson Tetreault, acting Chief Investigator, OCI, October 24, 1997.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid., and telephone interview with Tetreault, October 24, 1997.

33 Interview with Tom Eder, OCI, August 16, 1995.

34 Eder has since retired, and, as of this writing there was no permanent replacement.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch