ACLU report: Police complaints not always easy to file
Tickets unjustly handed out, officer rudeness, picking on teenagers — the Ridgefield Police Department gets complaints, though not great numbers of them, they say.
“Very few formal civilian complaints, maybe one or two a year. Very rarely more than that,” said Major Stephen Brown, the department’s executive officer and second-in-command.
“The types of complaints we receive more frequently would be when someone may gets a ticket and they don’t agree with it, or something like that, but they’re not claiming any misconduct by an officer.”
Complaints involving “serious allegations of misconduct by an officer” are less frequent. “And most of those are unfounded,” Major Brown said.
“We take the complaints, we investigate them, and I can tell you that most of them are unfounded.”
Who does the investigation?
“I do,” Major Brown said. “That’s part of my position.
“Part of what I do is to respond to the complainant and let them know the outcome of the investigation,” he said. “I update the chief throughout. And at the completion of the investigation the police commission would be notified as well.”
Are complaints against Ridgefield police officers reasonably easy to file?
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a study Jan. 26 showing that dozens of police agencies in Connecticut make it unnecessarily difficult for citizens to report police misconduct. (See report.)
The ACLU study was follow-up to Connecticut General Statute 7-294bb, “An Act Concerning Complaints that Allege Misconduct by Law Enforcement Agency Personnel.” That law, designed to streamline the police complaint process, passed both houses of the legislature in 2014 without a single opposing vote.
The report cites numerous obstacles to lodging police misconduct complaints: information being difficult to obtain; officers disseminating false or misleading information; officers not being reachable at all.
“Community members who wish to alert their police departments to misconduct should find open doors, not mazes of red tape and intimidation,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, who supervised the study. “Unfortunately, many people seeking to file police complaints in Connecticut will be unable to find information from their local departments. Others will encounter misinformation or intimidation. These violations of state law and policy are unacceptable and disappointing.
“Transparent, accessible police complaint procedures build public trust, which improves public safety. Police departments that stonewall concerned community members are missing out on an important chance to better serve themselves and our state.”
To compile the report, ACLU volunteers visited the websites of 102 police departments and municipalities to determine if a police complaint policy and complaint form were available online, as required by law.
In the part of the report where communities’ results are listed, Ridgefield doesn’t look so good — but not because it was found to discourage complaints, or intimidate people trying to file them.
Ridgefield shows up as a “N/A” or “not answered” on nine of 13 questions in the ACLU survey. That, people at both the Ridgefield Police Department and the ACLU told The Press, was the result of a the ACLU researcher not getting through — so questions were unanswered.
An ACLU researcher called the Ridgefield Police, told the person who answer the phone they were doing research into how to file a complaint and wanted help, was transferred from the front desk to one of the department higher-ups, got into voicemail, and hung up without leaving a message. It happened twice, and the ACLU didn’t call back, which was their procedure.
“There are actually 12 departments we were unable to reach — about 20% of the departments we called for our survey — so Ridgefield certainly wasn’t alone,” said Meghan Smith, one of the authors of the ACLU report,.
“In Ridgefield’s case it was that we weren’t able to reach the department in any of our two attempts to call them,” Smith said. “During our first attempt to call them we reached the general operator, who sent us to a voice mailbox and the same thing happened the second time we tried to reach them.”
Smith added, “We weren’t able to get a hold of them. And the average person trying to file a complaint, they want it to be as easy and transparent as possible. So that there’s no wrong door for someone who wants to file a complaint or get information.”
The script the ACLU callers worked from begins: “Hi, I am calling because I am doing a research project and am trying to get information about how to file a complaint against a police officer. I don’t know anything about this sort of thing, so I was hoping you could help me.”
It then continues with questions: “1. Is there a form to fill out? 2. Where can someone filing a complaint find the form? Would they have to come into the police station or is there somewhere else they can pick it up?…”
The ACLU’s Smith did give Ridgefield credit for taking the matter seriously. The ACLU got a call from Major Brown the day the day the report was released and sent around to departments.
“For the departments that have reached out to us,” she said, and are trying to improve their policies “that really does send the right message,” Smith said.
Major Brown answered, for The Press, the questions on the ACLU form.
Is an initial screening form on website? “Yes.”
Is there a form to fill out? “We do have a civilian complaint form that can be accessed online, or people can come into headquarters and pick up a civilian complaint report as well.”
Does a complaint need to be notarized to be accepted? “It does not,” Brown said. “And one of the recommendations of ACLU is to not even include a place for that on the form, so that is something we’ll examine. But we will accept it with or without.”
Does a complainant have to come to the station to submit the form? “No, they can submit them via email, fax, regular mail,” Brown said.
Could someone fill out the form anonymously? “Yes.”
Do you have a written policy about citizen complaints and the complaint investigation process?
“We do, and that’s also online, on the town’s website.”
The Press found that from the Town of Ridgefield website’s homepage, the policy can be reached with three mouse clicks — “government” then “police” then “Internal Affairs Procedures (Civilian complaint procedure).”
The policy is 11 pages, with the last two the form itself.
Brown said Ridgefield’s complaints policy reflects pretty closely the model policy put out by the state. And, he said the department takes its complaints procedure — and the ACLU’s critique — seriously.
“The ACLU report, we looked at it as just an opportunity to improve how we do things. Even though we didn’t really get to answer the questions, we used it to prompt some review,” Major Brown said.
“And anyone who feels wronged or feels that an officer engaged in some misconduct should feel free to talk to us, make a complaint, and we take them seriously,” he said. “The idea behind the state policy, with the input of the legislature and ACLU, is to make this an open process and fair process, so that’s what we’re striving for.”