HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Filing Complaints
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In general, police departments and citizen review units will not initiate an investigation into alleged police brutality without a formal complaint. Yet, in all fourteen cities examined by Human Rights Watch, there are serious flaws in the way complaints from the public are initially received or forwarded.74

Filing a complaint is unnecessarily difficult and often intimidating, whether the person seeking to complain deals with a precinct sergeant, an internal-affairs investigator or, to a lesser extent, with a civilian review agency. Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza has stated, "The police world has a hundred different ways of deflecting complaints."75 Complainants, whether they are victims or witnesses, may not know where to go to file a complaint. They may have difficulty communicating due to language barriers, or they may be met with hostility by officers who do not wish to receive a complaint about a colleague. They may be dissuaded from filing a complaint through threats or other techniques. Officers receiving complaints may ask questions that reveal they do not believe the complainant, or they may ask about the complainant's criminal history or charges that may be pending as a result of the arrest that gave rise to the alleged abuse incident.

One of the most notorious dissuasion efforts related to the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. When King's brother Paul tried to complain following the beating, the sergeant on duty treated him skeptically, asked him whether he had ever been in trouble, and never filled out a complaint form.76 Without the videotape that made it famous, the King case likely would have been just one more invisible, unrecorded incident.

Individuals who are arrested - among the most likely to become victims of abuse - can be reticent to file a complaint because they simply want to clear up the criminal matter they face. Many do not think their complaints will be believed. In a 1993 case in Washington, D.C., a man did not file a complaint with the police department after he was allegedly beaten by Officer Richard Fitzgerald. In an unusual move, Fitzgerald's fellow officers reported him to prosecutors, who eventually questioned the alleged victim. Fitzgerald was subsequently convicted on assault charges.77 In explaining his reluctance to file a complaint, the man stated, "Who is going to believe a drug addict?"78 While some criminals may believe, aspolice representatives have claimed, that filing a complaint will help their cases, many think filing a complaint would be futile and are afraid of angering the officers involved and making their criminal cases more difficult; criminal defense attorneys may also advise clients not to file complaints because they may reveal information that could be used as evidence against them in their own criminal trial.

Efforts to dissuade complainants have become extreme in some cities. In Seattle, the police officers' guild filed defamation lawsuits against six citizens who had filed complaints that were not sustained by the Internal Investigations Section of the police department in 1994 and 1995. In the six months following this retaliation, there was a drop of almost 75 percent in citizen complaints. The guild has stopped filing suits, but local rights advocates believe that its objective was met by sending a chilling message to prospective complainants.79 More recently in California, attorneys representing plaintiffs alleging police abuse in civil lawsuits have reported that police officers have sued plaintiffs and attorneys after unsuccessful civil rights litigation.80 The lawsuits filed by police officers allege defamation, malicious prosecution, or abuse of process. The civil rights attorneys believe that the lawsuits are intended to discourage such suits against the police by imposing costs on the civil rights attorneys to defend themselves.

Similarly, individuals who choose to file a complaint because of abusive treatment may face counter-charges by the police officer in question. If, for example, an officer uses excessive force while effecting an arrest, and the individual expresses interest in filing a complaint, the officer may attempt to explain his actions by charging the individual with what police abuse experts refer to as "the trilogy": disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer. Police abuse expert Prof. James J. Fyfe refers to these charges as "contempt of cop;" he has found that a small percentage of officers repeatedly file such charges and that they stem from an officer becoming offended by a citizen's demeanor rather than from any legitimate law enforcement purpose.81 When an individual has been charged withthese types of offenses, he or she can then be persuaded to drop the complaint against the offending officers in exchange for the counter-charges being dropped.

Police departments have an obligation to train officers in how to accept a complaint and to deal appropriately with complainants.82 Those who fail to accept a complaint according to departmental guidelines and with due respect for the individual filing a complaint should be disciplined appropriately. For a variety of reasons, some victims of abuse may choose not to file a formal complaint, but when they wish to do so, they must be treated with respect and provided with basic information about what to expect from the filing of a grievance.

In cases of alleged torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, the Convention against Torture, to which the U.S. is a party, provides there need not be a complaint filed by the victim or others. Article 12 states: "Each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction." Article (16)1 of the Convention applies the same standards for the investigation of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.83 According to Article 13, "[E]ach State party shall ensure that any individual who alleges he has been subjected to torture in any territory under its jurisdiction has the right complain to, and have his case promptly and impartially examined by, its competent authorities. Steps shall be taken to ensure that the complainant and witnesses are protected against all ill-treatment or intimidation as a consequence of his complaint or any evidence given."84

Superior officers often fail to encourage officers to report abuses by fellow officers. As described more fully below, officers within most police departmentsfear breaking the traditional "code of silence" and do not want to be considered disloyal or "rats." As a result, officers who are not abusive too often silently tolerate other officers' brutality rather than submit a complaint to the relevant internal affairs office or citizen review unit. Those officers and supervisors who remain silent after observing abusive behavior usually avoid any punishment for their inaction.

74 Officers may also file internal complaints against other officers, but little information is known about how those complaints are handled. It is clear that they are taken more seriously than complaints filed by members of the public, since statistics provided by some police departments show a much higher sustained rate for internallygenerated complaints.

75 David Ashenfelter, "Police brutality a metro dispute," Detroit Free Press, April 17, 1991.

76 Christopher Commission report, p. 10.

77 Bill Miller, "D.C. officer convicted of assault on suspect," Washington Post, November 2, 1996.

78 Ibid.

79 Lynne Wilson, "Cops vs. Citizen Review," Covert Action Quarterly, Winter 1995-96, p. 11.

80 Paul L. Hoffman, "Defending Police Against SLAPP suits," (paper presented at the meeting of Police Watch, Los Angeles, Ca., May 1997). SLAPP refers to "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation."

81 Declaration of James J. Fyfe, Ph.D., United States of America v. City of Steubenville, Steubenville Police Department, Steubenville City Manager, in his capacity as director of Public Safety, and Steubenville Civil Service Commission, Civil No. C2 97-966, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, August 28,1997, p. 7. For examples of "contempt of cop" incidents in New York City, see Dan Barry and Deborah Sontag, "Disrespect as catalyst for police brutality," New York Times, November 19, 1997.

82 Former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara was among those who told Human Rights Watch that officers should receive training on how to receive complaints from the public. Human Rights Watch interview with Joe McNamara, September 18, 1995.

83 General Assembly Resolution 39/46, December 10, 1984, in Centre for Human Rights, Human Rights: A Compilation, p. 293. Article (16)1 of the Convention applies the same standards for the investigation of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

84 Ibid.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch