ACLU Survey: Some Connecticut Police Make Complaint Process Intimidating
Dec 05, 2012 (The Hartford Courant - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Filing a civilian complaint against police is a daunting and at times intimidating process, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut has concluded after surveying more than 100 police agencies.
The 31-page report, "Protect, Serve and Listen," was released Tuesday. The study, not intended to be scientific, is based on a telephone survey earlier this year in which volunteers using a script called 92 municipal police departments and 12 state police barracks to get basic information about how to file a complaint against an officer. If answers could not be obtained the first time, the volunteers were instructed to call back once.
"Filing a complaint against a police officer can be daunting and many Connecticut police departments make it even more intimidating with policies that require sworn statements, threaten prosecution for false statements, warn of civil liabilities or expose complainants to the possibility of deportation. All these practices are widely discouraged by law enforcement policy experts," the report states.
Most police departments in the state impose barriers to accept complaints, the ACLU report contends. And many set conditions to discourage complaints, according to the report.
For instance, the report states that the Berlin Police Department suggested to a caller that if he wanted to file a complaint about an officer, he talk to the officer first.
The exact response, according to the report: "Speak to the officer you want to complain about in the station and if you're unhappy with that, then you can talk to a supervisor."
Deputy Chief John Klett of the Berlin Police Department said, "I was surprised because that is not how we do business."
Such a call should be directed to a supervisor, he said.
The Westport Police Department suggested that anyone who wants to complain about police could expect to be investigated himself, according to the report.
"When a complaint is filed, the complainant's name is run through a computer," a caller was told, according to the report.
Westport Police Capt. Sam Arciola said the department would have no comment until reviewing the report.
State police were more abrasive than municipal police, the ACLU concluded. Volunteer callers found that 50 percent of those answering the phones at state police barracks were either hostile or defensive while only 20 percent of those picking up the phones at municipal police departments behaved that way, the report states.
There were also police department employees who said they didn't know of any policy for filing complaints against officers.
"No one knows what the policy and procedure for an investigation is," the Stamford Police Department told a caller, according to the report.
Even if the complaint process was generally known, the specifics weren't clear at times, the ACLU found.
"One of the clearest points to emerge from our survey and research was that the best civilian complaint policies are pointless if the public doesn't get accurate information about them," the report reads in part.
David McGuire, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut, said that although some law enforcement agencies had trouble answering basic questions, others were extremely helpful. He stressed the importance of training anyone who answers the phone at a police department or barracks to know the procedure for filing a civilian complaint against an officer.
"The bottom line is there needs to be an open system that works for the public to file a complaint if necessary," he said.
Among the findings in the report:
-- Most police departments impose barriers to accepting complaints, such as refusing anonymous complaints and third-party complaints, which goes against widely accepted police standards, according to the report. Sixty-one percent of the municipal police agencies told callers they would not accept anonymous complaints and 10 percent could or would not answer the question.
"Only 29 percent clearly said they would accept anonymous complaints," the report states.
-- 58 percent of all those surveyed said they would refuse a complaint from a third party.
-- 39 percent said they wouldn't take a complaint from someone younger than 18 without a parent or guardian present.
-- 58 percent said a person had to go in person to a police department to file a complaint even though the International Association of Chiefs of Police says police departments wanting to show true responsiveness should accept complaints in any form, including in person or by phone, mail or the Internet.
-- Although the U.S. Department of Justice maintains that a complaint against a police officer need not be made under oath or penalty of perjury, 10 of the 22 municipal police departments that provide complaint forms online require a sworn statement or notarization, according to the report.
"At least one Connecticut police department (Hamden) not only requires a notarized statement but asks on its form whether the complainant is willing to submit to a polygraph examination," the report states.
-- Although a complainant's immigration status shouldn't matter, 15 percent of those surveyed said that if an illegal immigrant wanted to file a complaint, immigration officials would be called, and 52 percent gave no answer, according to the survey. The Middletown Police Department said, "[We would] take them into custody ... [and] deport them;" the New Britain Police Department asked, "Are you illegal " and the Milford Police Department said, "You would have to come in to find out," according to the survey.
But 33 percent said immigration wouldn't be called, according to the report. The Torrington Police Department said, "Illegal immigrants still have the right to file complaints," and the Willimantic Police Department said, "[Illegal immigrants] have the same rights as anyone else with regard to law enforcement," the report states.
-- Although experts recommend against imposing deadlines for filing complaints, many police departments impose arbitrary time limits. According to the report, the Milford Police Department told a caller, "[If the incident was] over a year ago, they'll tell you to walk right back out the front door."
Milford Police Chief Keith Mello said his department has a long-established policy for taking civilian complaints, which can be made -- anonymously or not -- in person, online, by phone, by letter and soon, by text. All employees of the department have to sign off on that policy, he added.
Milford police also have a system of tracking officers' actions, according to Mello, who said that every police car is equipped with a camera.
"Someone was clearly misinformed as to our long-established policy," he said.
He said an illegal immigrant filing a report against a police officer would not be reported to immigration authorities.
"We wouldn't report them because we wouldn't ask that question," Mello said. "It's not a relevant question."
Connecticut State Police spokesman, Lt. J. Paul Vance, said troopers and civilian employees are expected to always act professionally toward the public.
"We would simply say that certainly we want to believe our personnel are professional all the time, but we understand they're human beings," he said.
There is a "crystal clear ... step-by-step" guide, "Citizen's Guide to Making Commendations or Complaints," on the web -- and complaints can be made online as well as in person, by letter and email, according to Vance.
He said a statement on the state police website that the ACLU notes in its report -- "False reporting in an attempt to unjustly subject a Connecticut State Trooper to undeserved discipline ... can result in criminal charges or civil liability" -- is simply the truth, not meant to intimidate.
Troopers independent of their peers do the investigating, Vance noted. And reports on the number and types of complaints received are online, he said.
The president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, Southington Police Chief Jack Daly, could not be reached. The Stamford and Hamden police departments could not be reached for comment.
The report mentions two departments in more detail than others: the Hartford and East Haven police departments.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the East Haven Police Department engaged in biased policing, particularly against Latinos, the report notes.
"Our survey found that while the East Haven Police Department had applied many improvements to the complaint process, the East Haven police employee who spoke to our caller couldn't tell us whether an illegal immigrant filing a complaint against a police officer would be reported to immigration authorities," the report states in part.
It also says: "Our investigation discovered that the practices condemned by the Department of Justice in East Haven persist at many other police departments throughout the state."
In 2011, a consultant's review showed that management oversight of the Hartford Police Department's Internal Affairs Division was "lax and at times nonexistent," and concluded that the department had ignored recommendations in a 2008 report that called for improvements to the department's citizen complaint process to get it comply with the settlement of a civil rights lawsuit reached nearly 40 years earlier, according to the ACLU.
While a brochure telling how to complain about or commend an officer's conduct is on the department's web site -- in English and Spanish -- the ACLU says when it called the Hartford Police Department, the respondent told the caller that complaints would be accepted in person only and would refuse anonymous complaints. During a test-run, however, the ACLU notes that another employee who answered the phone gave answers consistent with the brochure on line.
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