Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Marin [County] grand jury seeks changes in police complaint process
Lodging a complaint with any of Marin County’s 10 law enforcement entities can be confusing, time consuming and discouraging, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury concludes in a new report.
A state law enacted more than 40 years ago requires all law enforcement agencies in California to establish procedures to investigate complaints by members of the public against their officers and to make written descriptions of those procedures available to the public.
The grand jury found that while all of Marin’s law enforcement agencies have procedures for registering citizen complaints, some of those procedures could act as deterrents to participating in the complaint process. Most notably, the grand jury found that in some cases local agencies were using procedures and admonitions that have been held to be unconstitutional.
The grand jury said the Central Marin Police Authority was using a citizen complaint form that included warnings that complainants could be held both criminally and civily liable for bringing a false complaint against a peace officer.
The grand jury said the law that put complainants at risk of prosecution for a false report has been ruled unconstitutional and the constitutionality of the civil action has also been challenged. No form for handling citizen complaints should include such warnings, lest they create a chilling effect, the grand jury said.
“The grand jury was spot-on,” said Central Marin police Chief Todd Cusimano.
He said those two admonitions were removed from Central Marin forms more than five years ago; but old forms containing them were mistakenly substituted three or four months ago.
“That was a mistake; that is on me,” Cusimano said. He said the error was corrected as soon as he read the grand jury report and learned of the flub.
Cusimano said he also agreed with the grand jury’s recommendation that Marin agencies need to make their procedures easier to understand.
The Central Marin Police Authority wasn’t the only agency singled out.
The grand jury said the Sausalito Police Department also includes a warning of possible criminal prosecution for false complaints on its website.
Sausalito police Chief John Rohrbacher said the law allowing criminal prosecution for filing a false complaint has been ruled unconstitutional only at the federal level, not the state level. He said that because the law itself directs law enforcement agencies to cite it, his department has retained it on its forms and website; but Sausalito has edited the citation to tone down the prosecutory threat.
“We think we’ve reached the appropriate compromise,” Rohrbacher said.
The grand jury also faulted the Mill Valley Police Department for requiring complainants to sign a verification of their complaints’ contents.
The grand jury wrote, “Requiring an oath may discourage honest people who may be reticent regarding how their complaint will be handled by the system as it potentially raises a fear that the citizen could be prosecuted for bringing the complaint, particularly in cases in which a complaint is not sustained.”
Mill Valley police Chief Angel Bernal said that despite the language on the form, his department does not require complainants to sign a sworn statement.
“We don’t require them to sign anything. We’ll take information even if someone calls on our anonymous tip line,” Bernal said.
The grand jury found a number of other problems with local agencies’ procedures. It said some law enforcement agencies’ complaint procedures require face-to-face contact with law enforcement officers. Not all agencies provide Spanish translations of their policies and procedures. Not all agencies accept and investigate anonymous citizen complaints. Information about complaint procedures is difficult to find on some agency websites. And Marin law enforcement agencies do not publish the number, nature or disposition of citizen complaints.
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“An improved and uniform complaint process would provide greater credibility and effectiveness to the citizen complaint process,” the grand jury wrote.
Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle, however, doubts Marin law enforcement agencies will adopt a uniform process for dealing with citizen complaints.
“That’s not going to happen,” Doyle said. “Each agency is responsible for developing a policy based on law, so I think each agency is going to continue to have its own policy.”
As for reporting the number of complaints and their disposition, Doyle said his department received a total of 30 complaints from 2011 to 2016. None of them have been sustained. Doyle said the data are reported regularly to the state Department of Justice, and he plans to begin supplying county supervisors with the numbers on a quarterly basis, a practice that was followed for a time in the past and then discontinued.
July 2, 2016
Marin Independent Journal
By Richard Halstead