Police complaints represent a basic First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. But here are four ways police departments disregard this fundamental right.

1) Police Station Intimidation

For those of you who are brave enough to file police complaints in-person, don’t expect service with a smile. Your typical customer service will match the speed of the DMV with the friendliness of the TSA. In other words, not good.

In 2014, the ACLU sent undercover testers into ten District of Columbia police stations. The testers asked officers for information on how to file a police complaint. Officers in six of the ten stations failed to give the correct way to file a complaint. Officers at two of the stations reacted to requests with hostility.

Sometimes brave citizens try to record these moments. When they do, police tend to respond with additional acts of intimidation, including threats of arrest.

2) Police Departments Fail to Embrace Technology

Do you prefer to file a complaint without upsetting a grumpy desk officer? If so, you might Google to find another way to file a complaint. To make things more confusing, there are roughly 18,000 state and local police agencies in the United States. And each one has its own special way of collecting police complaints.

Regrettably, most departments fail to provide any useful online information about how to file complaints. (Go figure!) The few that do rarely allow you to submit complaints online. Instead, they usually make you send paper complaints by mail or fax. Often departments claim that complaints can only be submitted in-person. (See Failure #1.)

3) Department Rules Block Complaints Investigation

Perhaps you couldn’t find a working fax machine. Instead, you mailed your complaint to the department. (You even paid more for delivery confirmation!) But did you know that your complaint could be rejected before it’s ever investigated? A 2014 Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the Cleveland Department of Police (CDP) exposed some of the tricks departments use to get away with this.

First, department rules allow them to “administratively withdraw” complaints for petty reasons that have nothing to do with the substance of a complaint. For example, CDP investigators would withdraw excessive force complaints because there was no signature on the form. Sometimes they withdrew complaints because they were in someone else’s handwriting. Other times investigators made weak attempts to contact complainants. Then they quickly withdrew their complaint due to a “lack of response.”

Stephen Hawking's police complaint would not be investigated in many police departments

Sorry, Professor. We’ll need your handwritten signature to investigate your complaint. (Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

Second, many of these rules were part of the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the police union. Across the country, similar union rules and statewide Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights laws make it easier for police to avoid investigating complaints.

4) Local Laws Keep Police Complaints Secret

Even if you’re aware that police often do a poor job investigating complaints, you might mail in a complaint anyway. You can congratulate yourself, because your “official record” of police misconduct will be open to the public. Right? Don’t count on it.

Do you remember that NYPD cop who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold? Afterwards, civil rights attorneys requested records of sustained past complaints against Officer Pantaleo. But the city refused to release them! They invoked a state law that’s been used to keep secret nearly every state record dealing with individual police misconduct.

Under the law, officers’ personnel records cannot be publicly released without a judge’s approval. This includes instances when officers have been prosecuted or disciplined for misconduct. In other words, if you submit a police complaint in New York, your report is no longer open to the public. Instead, it’s shielded from public view, because it’s tied to an officer’s confidential personnel file!

Update: A New York judge finally ordered the release Officer Pantaleo’s prior misconduct record.

Wait, There’s Hope!

Even though most police departments have a terrible police complaints process – we can do better. Flex Your Rights is now developing online tools to improve the police complaints experience.

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Coming soon

This new project is called Open Police Complaints (OPC). To receive updates about OPC’s progress, please sign up to the Flex Your Rights email list below.

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