SHERIFF'S CORNER: Handling Citizen Complaints
Policing the police is something that we hear all over the news and social media. Most recently, I have heard much banter on issues relating to my agency and what has been done or not done when dealing with citizen complaints. As no one likes to receive complaints, regardless of whatever job you do, ultimately it is going to happen. Especially, when it comes to law enforcement.
Law enforcement organizations nationwide deal with complaints on a frequent basis. Some citizen complaints are unfounded or simple misunderstandings resulting from poor communication.
Filing a complaint against a police officer should be relatively easy with as many access points as possible. This process generally has four parts: filing, acknowledgement, assignment and resolution.
In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner," I discuss our process of handling complaints by citizens. This includes excerpts from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
Civilian oversight fosters a greater sense of trust among citizens with regards to how complaints against the police will be resolved. Every day, tens of thousands of law enforcement personnel throughout the United States perform honorable and conscientious police work, but irreparable damage may be done to the entire profession from even one remote story of police misconduct or corruption.
How each community perceives law enforcement depends on each police agency. How the department interacts with its citizens, how accessible it is to the community, and how it manages internal affairs issues are integral to the profession overall. It is for these reasons that building and maintaining community trust is the hallmark of effective policing.
It's not personal. Though sometimes it can seem like it, a complaint is not you vs. them. A complaint is just someone's negative interpretation of events, and it could have merit or not. Once you realize that it's not personal, complaint response becomes a process, not a confrontation.
The key to dealing with any complaint is showing respect. By respecting yourself and others, everything else will fall into place.
As my record shows, we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard and lead by example. I have had a low tolerance for impropriety and misconduct both on duty and off.
FILING A COMPLAINT
A complaint can be made formally or informally. This starts with contacting the Sheriff's Office. Generally, a written statement is helpful but is not always required. After receiving a complaint, we will send you a Complaint Acknowledgement Letter which states:
"The Lake County Sheriff's Office hereby acknowledges receipt of the complaint you filed against one of its members. I will assign an investigator to gather the facts. It is the policy of this department to thoroughly and impartially investigate all complaints filed by citizens or outside agencies. It is for this reason that it may become necessary for the investigator to contact you personally, to clarify issues or to obtain additional relevant information.
"Once the investigator’s report has been filed, I will carefully review it, and a final disposition will be made. At that time, I will notify you of the disposition of your complaint. This usually occurs within a period of 30 days from the date the complaint was received. Depending on the seriousness of the charges, however, the investigation might require more time than that. Until then, you may rest assured that this department will not condone, tolerate, sanction, or ignore inappropriate or unacceptable conduct."
Depending on the totality of the complaint, it will either be assigned to a road sergeant, the chief deputy, the detective bureau, the Undersheriff or an outside agency. After assignment, a thorough investigation will entail. The procedures for accepting and investigating both internal and external complaints against an officer will be fair, consistent, and timely.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to citizen complaints. If we choose to use an outside investigator or agency to conduct the investigation, that person or agency will be independent, unbiased, and knowledgeable in the areas of law enforcement and employment law.
It has been common practice to utilize the Michigan State Police or the Michigan Sheriffs Association's Mission Team. This involves investigators from at least two counties away that are brought in to conduct an investigation. We also have members from the Lake County Sheriff's Office who participate in this process when it involves other agencies.
When a complaint is completed, the citizen who made the complaint will be notified. This will reach the following conclusions:
• Sustained: Evidence exists to support the allegation and further action is to be taken.
• Not Sustained: Insufficient evidence exists to either support or disproves the allegation may be returned for further investigation.
• Exonerated: No violation occurred or actions were justified.
• Unfounded: The allegation did not occur.
There will also be a Resolution Letter that states:
"The Lake County Sheriff's Office has completed the investigation into your complaint against member(s) of this department. The matter has been investigated. Subsequent to that investigation, the complaint will be closed with the findings of: (Joe Smith e.g.; Sustained, Not Sustained, Exonerated, Unfounded). Thank you for your time. This matter is now closed."
This does not mean that the complainant will always be advised of the action taken, but it may be included. A call may also be placed to the complainant by me personally or by the command staff.
COMMITMENT TO THE COMMUNITY
The Lake County Sheriff's Office strives each and everyday to provide you with the most professional service that exceeds common standards. This includes consistent training, legal updates, proactive supervision and community involvement.
As my mission states: “Providing exceptional public safety services while serving with Honor, Integrity, and Dedication to those who live, work, and visit Lake County.”
I am very proud of the professional and dedicated staff here at the Lake County Sheriff's Office. These men and women work hard and efficient to complete my mission. Contact with the community should not always be negative in nature. We should be out in the community making positive contacts and establishing relationships. The better relationship by both parties, the better we can effectively do our job.
This information is provided to you for clarification of specific laws and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law. If you have any questions on any specific topic, you can always email me your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.