Protect, Serve, and listen: Accepting Civilian Complaints at Connecticut Police Departments
Police departments in Connecticut routinely impose barriers to accepting complaints from civilians, disregarding best practices that are widely accepted by law enforcement experts, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
A survey conducted by the ACLU of Connecticut found that police departments fell short of professional standards by failing to make complaint forms available, refusing to accept anonymous complaints, imposing time limits on receiving complaints, requiring sworn statements or threatening criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit for false statements. Many police employees could not answer questions about their departments' complaint procedures, refused to answer questions, provided inaccurate information or contradicted information from other employees. The findings reveal a need for statewide standards to ensure that civilians with complaints about police misconduct will not be turned away, intimidated or silenced.
"We've been hearing from too many people who have had difficulty filing complaints with their local police departments," said David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut, who supervised the study. "We rely on the police for our safety, and we're grateful for their service. But we also entrust police officers with extraordinary authority, including the power to use deadly force, and this must be balanced by accountability, with a clear and reliable method for civilians to register their concerns about police conduct."
Several high-profile investigations and reports about Connecticut police agencies, including most recently the East Haven Police Department, have shown serious deficiencies in procedures for handling complaints of police misconduct. In a consent decree signed last month with the U.S. Department of Justice, East Haven's mayor and police commission agreed to a series of reforms governing how complaints from civilians are handled, many of them closely aligned with the recommendations in the ACLU of Connecticut report. The report's recommendations are drawn from the best practices advocated by the Department of Justice, the International Associations of Chiefs of Police, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and other law-enforcement policy experts.
The report is based on a telephone survey of 104 Connecticut law enforcement agencies in Connecticut -- the 92 municipal police departments required to report under the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act and the 12 individual state police barracks. Trained volunteers telephoned the police agencies' routine, non-emergency numbers during January and February 2012 during normal business hours and asked 10 specific multi-part questions about the civilian complaint process. The results highlight how difficult it can be for Connecticut residents to file a complaint with their local police departments and how challenging it can be to obtain even basic information about how to file a complaint. We found that:
- Twenty-three percent of municipal police departments (excluding state police) reported having no complaint form for civilians to fill out.
- Sixty-one percent of the municipal police agencies in Connecticut told our callers they would not accept anonymous complaints, although law-enforcement policy experts strongly agree that police should accept complaints made anonymously. Another 10 percent could not or would not answer the question.
- Threatening criminal prosecution for false complaints is widely considered a deterrent to those with legitimate complaints. But nearly two-thirds of the complaint forms posted online by municipal police departments in Connecticut contain such warnings.
- Law enforcement policy experts recommend strongly against demanding a sworn statement from a civilian filing a complaint, but nearly half the complaint forms posted online by municipal police departments in Connecticut mention that requirement. Employees at several departments without online forms also mentioned the requirement to our callers.
- Only a third of departments in our survey clearly stated that immigration authorities would not be called against a civilian complainant. More than half did not answer or expressed some degree of uncertainty and 15 percent said they would definitely report a complainant to immigration authorities.
These widespread deficiencies in accepting complaints from civilians must be addressed, and the report recommends a set of minimum standards for all police departments in the state. These include establishing written policies on accepting complaints, providing complaint forms to the public, accepting anonymous complaints and refraining from requiring sworn statements from those filing complaints.
"We found problems and we found solutions," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. "We'll work toward a law to set standards for accepting police complaints - the same standards supported by law enforcement policy experts. But police chiefs and police commissions don't have to wait. They can start now to look at their policies and procedures to make sure they are listening to the public they serve."