June 27, 2006 – Thousands of public complaints are made against police officers for using violence against civilians, but an overwhelming majority do not result in disciplinary action against the officers in question, according to a new report from the US Department of Justice.
The agency reviewed 26,556 "citizen complaints" filed during 2002 at state and local law-enforcement agencies. Out of that number, just 8 percent were sustained with enough evidence to justify taking punitive action against the accused officer. The report did not say how often or in or what ways officers in this group were disciplined.
In nearly one-half of the cases reviewed, authorities exonerated officers despite allegations that they acted excessively; in about a third of incidents, investigators said they did not find enough evidence that unlawful force was used.
The DoJ report lacks specific accounts of police conduct, let alone victimsâ€™ or witnessesâ€™ perspectives.
The author also neglected to define "use of force," a term used regularly in the report, which was released Sunday. The Department states on its website that there is "no single, accepted definition among the researchers, analysts or the police." The report does, however, take pains to define "use of excessive force" â€“ when officers uses too much violence â€“ and "excessive use of force" â€“ when officers use violence legally but in too many incidents.
In nearly one-half of the cases reviewed, authorities exonerated officers despite allegations that they acted excessively.
The report also cautioned that complaint data is inconsistent across agencies. The reportâ€™s author, statistician Matthew Hickman, wrote that the quality of records â€“ in addition to differences in receiving, processing, and recording complaints â€“ affects the volume and rate of complaints reported across law-enforcement agencies.
For example, the review found that departments with an internal audit division had a higher rate of complaints than those without. Additionally, officers were more than twice as likely to be exonerated at departments that lacked such a division.
Furthermore, wrote Hickman, "[use-of-]force complaints represent a subset of all force events. That is, not all [use-of-]force events result in citizens filing formal complaints."
According to another DoJ-authored report, based on the Departmentâ€™s 2002 "Contacts Between the Police and the Public" survey, less than 20 percent of respondents who reported experiencing what they said was excessive threat or use of force, took formal action such as filing a complaint or lawsuit. The study extrapolated that a total of 664,500 people in the United States â€“ or about 1.5 percent of those who had contact with police â€“ experienced a use of force by police. Three quarters of them perceived it to be "excessive."
Police watchdogs agree that complaint statistics are inaccurate. The American Civil Liberties Union states on its website that figures are marred by agenciesâ€™ reluctance to provide information and by data that is difficult to interpret. According to the ACLU, "the number of complaints counted is also affected by whether or not the internal-affairs system accepts anonymous complaints and complaints by phone or mail, or requires in-person, sworn statements."
Minnesota lawmakers passed a â€œfalse reportingâ€ bill last year that makes it illegal to report a claim of police misconduct that is not proven to be true.
Human Rights Watch has also documented hurdles in the police-accountability process. "Complainants, whether they are victims or witnesses, may not know where to go to file a complaint," the group wrote in 1998. "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. â€¦ 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."
Even greater obstacles are cropping up in some places. In Minnesota, a new law could further discourage people from filing complaints. Lawmakers passed a "false reporting" bill last year that makes it illegal to report a claim of police misconduct that is not proven to be true.
Communities United Against Police Brutality, a Twin Cities police watchdog group, questions just who would be determining whether or not a brutality complaint is false under the bill. "This law is clearly meant to frighten people away from filing complaints against abusive police officers," the group said in a petition.
Earlier this month, a coalition of community groups in Richmond, Virginia held a protest to voice frustration with police using what they considered excessive force, especially against black residents. The rally followed the cityâ€™s decision not to prosecute an officer involved in a fatal shooting of an unarmed man, and a judgeâ€™s dismissal of criminal charges against an officer accused of assaulting and cursing at a woman during a traffic stop.
Many community activists have long agitated for more accountability of officers who brutalize civilians. Some have formed Copwatch groups to "police the police" in places like Berkley, Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon.
In a growing number of cities, communities have lobbied for and organized civilian complaint review boards (CCRB) to review allegations of police misconduct. According to the DoJ report released this week, about one-fifth of large municipal police forces are overseen by such a board. The report noted that cities with CCRBs tend to receive more complaints, but it did not address the cause-or-effect relationship between the boards, incidences of alleged abuse and actual complaint-filing rates.
Some groups have criticized CCRBs, claiming they are not truly independent and lack the tools necessary to effectively hold officers accountable for wrongdoing. The DoJ report found that only about one-in-four CCRBs had independent investigative authority with subpoena powers.
The recent DoJ report also found that in the three quarters of municipalities that allowed police to unionize, residents filed police brutality complaints at significantly higher rates and those complaints were less than half as likely to be sustained.
The DoJ said the citizen-complaint survey report was part of its "continuing efforts to develop data resources on police use of force."