Friday, July 22, 2016

[Marin County] Marin IJ Editorial: Grand jury’s good advice on police complaint process

The 2015-16 Marin County Civil Grand Jury is right to point out a significant flaw in police departments’ citizen complaint process.
Specifically, the grand jury’s June 16 report points to language in some departments’ complaint forms that warn that the complainants could be legally liable for complaints they file. On some forms, people filing complaints are warned they may face civil or criminal consequences as a result of their complaints.
Such warnings discourage people from filing complaints.
The grand jury’s recommendation that a uniform complaint process be established countywide is a good one — an improvement that with the participation of other departments, elected leaders and citizen outreach can establish a simple form that would serve members of the public who have a complaint.
Making complaint forms available online and explaining the departments’ process for reviewing complaints are also good steps.
Whether it’s the wording of the forms or an opaque process, citizens should not be discouraged from filing complaints when they feel they have been mistreated.
As part of their investigation, grand jurors personally went to every police agency and asked how to file a complaint. What they got was a less-than-uniformed response.
In some cases, agency staff had to search a file cabinet to find the forms. In some departments, officers were unaware of their own department’s process for handling complaints.
Marin police agencies don’t get a lot of complaints, according to the grand jury’s research. In fact, the grand jury stresses that the majority of our local police “operate within the rules of their profession, and recognize and respect the rights of citizens.”
Its report does not criticize the performance of local police officers and sheriff’s deputies, but it questions their departments’ procedures.
While laudable that local departments don’t get many complaints, it would be better if they also had a clear and easily accessible process for filing and addressing complaints.
In fact, police departments’ move to using body cameras on officers has been seen as a way to address complaints.
Having an open complaint procedure, however, is an important part of police agencies’ communication with the public.
There might be incidents in which the process could be abused by some. But there might also be valid concerns that bring needed improvements to the attention of police officers and department leaders.
The grand jury says that during their interviews with local police agencies’ leaders, every chief and Sheriff Robert Doyle stressed the importance of keeping the lines of communication open with the public.
Having an open, accessible and non-threatening process by which to make a complaint is an important way to promote that open communication. Departments need to not only take complaints seriously, but demonstrate to the public that their complaint will be and has been fairly reviewed.
The grand jury is a court-appointed citizen watchdog panel that looks into local issues. Its review and recommendations regarding the citizens complaint process is valid public feedback and lays out good reasons for changes.
July 11, 2016
Marion Independent Journal

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