If you feel that police have violated your rights, or you’ve witnessed police misconduct against someone else, do not panic. It’s normal to feel intimidated. But responding to misconduct is an essential step towards protecting yourself and your community from future police abuse.
There are several steps to the process of combating police misconduct. You must approach them in a calm and organized manner.
Step 1: Write everything down
This step is extremely important and must be done as soon as possible after the incident. It’s easy to forget small details over time, and there’s no way to know which facts will make a difference later on.
In your own words describe everything that happened from the very start of the police encounter to the end. When quoting yourself or the officer try to use exact words. Be specific about the location, time of day, etc. Replay the events slowly in your head to help remember as many details as possible.
Also include witness’ names and contact information and the officers’ names, physical descriptions, car number, and badge numbers. If necessary, return to the scene of the incident to talk to possible witnesses. This might also help jog your memory about other important details.
Only include facts that you’re sure about. Be very careful to avoid inaccuracies. These can easily damage your credibility and undermine your important work.
Tip: It’s okay if you didn’t get the badge or vehicle number. An officer’s identity can be established with a time, location, and physical description.
Step 2: Consult with an attorney
This step is essential if you were arrested following the incident. (If you were not arrested, it’s optional but recommended.)
Victims of police misconduct are often forcefully prosecuted in order to gain leverage in case the victim files a lawsuit. If you’re caught in a situation like this, you need a good police misconduct attorney immediately. Avoid attorneys who work in many different areas of the law. (Click here for a list of attorneys who specialize in handling cases of police misconduct.)
Police misconduct cases are challenging, and lawyers meet a lot of difficult people. Distinguish yourself by being calm and well-organized. The materials you prepared in Step 1 will help demonstrate that you are a smart defendant whose case is worth taking.
Whether or not you were not charged with a crime following the incident, you might still want to pursue a civil suit against the police. An attorney will help you determine whether you have a strong enough case.
Proving police misconduct is extremely difficult. So attorneys tend to choose whether to proceed based on the strength of the evidence, rather than the severity of the misconduct. Such cases are often taken on contingency, meaning that you won’t have to pay any up-front legal fees. Your lawyer only gets paid if he or she wins a settlement from the police department.
Do not get upset if you can’t find an attorney to take your case. Simply proceed to Step 3.
Step 3: File a Police Misconduct Report
This step cannot begin until all criminal charges and civil actions have been resolved. Prematurely filing a police misconduct report will hurt your chances in court by revealing too much information to the police. (Of course, if you weren’t charged with a crime and you’re not suing, file the complaint right away.)
The materials you prepared in Step 1 will form the body of your complaint. You’ll be glad you wrote everything down before because you might not want to file your complaint until weeks or months later.
Where to file your complaint depends on your jurisdiction. There’s usually a citizen review board or an office within the police department that accepts them. Googling “police complaint” + “[name of your town or city]” will usually direct you to the correct office. If your town has a civilian review board and an office within the police department that both accept complaints, send your report to both offices.
There might be an official form that you’re required to use. If so, simply transfer the information you wrote down in Step 1 onto the correct form. Failing to do so could result in your complaint being rejected arbitrarily.
In some areas, you might have to call or visit a police office in order to obtain the proper form. If this is required, avoid discussing the nature of your complaint with any police officers. Police might try to intimidate you by claiming that your particular complaint has no merit. Worse, they might warn the officers involved, which could lead to a cover-up.
Finally, before sending your complaint, be sure to make copies and keep them in a secure location. Send your complaint by Certified Mail so the police cannot deny having received it. You should also send copies to your local ACLU and NAACP chapters.
Finally, remember that filing a complaint does not ensure a prompt response from the police department or civilian monitoring agency. Police departments receive many complaints, so your concerns won’t always receive the individual attention they might deserve.
Regardless, your complaint creates an official record of an incident. It might later be used along with other complaints to illustrate a pattern of misconduct. This information is useful to community leaders working to prevent police abuse in your community. Your complaint could also become relevant if the same officer is accused of additional misconduct. In short, your complaint is important even if you never get a response.