Culture of Complaint

What happened when I was accused of police brutality.  

If you’ve been mistreated by the police, don’t count on getting Janet Reno to address your grievance. Only victims of the most extraordinary or horrific misconduct—the Abner Louimas and the Rodney Kings—receive attention from district attorneys’ offices, the Justice Department, or the press. If your complaint is of the more common variety, involving discourtesy, unnecessary force, or abuse of authority, you’ll have to file it with your local civilian complaint board. Good luck getting a real answer.

I got my first and only civilian complaint in 1992, after about a year and a half on the job. A man alleged that I had stopped him unlawfully, slammed him against a wall, searched him without justification, and said some crude things to him. In fact, I had stopped him because a bulge at his waist looked to me like a gun, and the way his shirt was pulled down reminded me of the way I occasionally conceal my own weapon. I had told him to face the wall and placed my hand on his back. This revealed that the offending bulge was only a large pager. That was the extent of our contact, physical or otherwise; the man was angry, but the encounter ended there. I only found out about his complaint a few months after it had been made.

When called to the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, this fellow brought no witnesses and offered no evidence to support his story. The only proof that I had to show that my actions were legitimate was the “Stop and Frisk” report that we fill out when we search someone. In other words, all the CCRB had to go on were our two conflicting accounts. The complaint was ruled “unsubstantiated,” meaning that the board declined to rule on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A mark was made on my record and the case was closed.

This seemed monstrously unjust to me. I had been acting in my capacity as a protector of my city. I had even been polite. No matter—for the rest of my career, a check of my department record will bring up that complaint. If I wind up the subject of a more serious allegation on the front page of the New York Times, you will read about me as “a 10-year veteran with an allegation of excessive force in 1992.”

I imagine that this situation is just as frustrating for victims of police misconduct. Say my accuser’s allegations were all true but that I denied them to the CCRB. That would have been the end of the matter. I’d have changed this man’s world for the worse; I’d have shaken his faith in the system; and all I’d get would be a little footnote on my personnel file that said, someone said something bad about me, but no one believed it.

So, most complaints marked unsubstantiated deny vindication to someone who deserves it, either a slandered cop or an abused citizen. And we’re talking about hundreds of cops and citizens. Last year, the CCRB investigated 2035 cases. Of those, 39 percent were deemed unsubstantiated, 25 percent were judged unfounded (the act did not occur), 13 percent substantiated (the complaint was legitimate), and 12 percent exonerated (the act occurred but was justified). It’s easy to see why unsubstantiated cases outnumber the others. Cops are reluctant to inform against their co-workers, particularly in the relatively minor cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the CCRB. The best the agency can do is maintain records in hope of discovering patterns of abuse. Even that’s not as simple as it sounds; a few aggrieved New Yorkers repeatedly bring spurious charges against particular officers.

This puts the police department in a tough position. On the one hand, we run the risk of eroding morale by giving credence to possibly false complaints; on the other, we risk losing the faith of the people we police by ignoring valid grievances. The attitude of most cops that I know is that while you should do what you can to avoid complaints, a few are the unavoidable price of good police work. But this sense of inevitability has a corrosive effect: If I’m bound to receive unsubstantiated civilian complaints, avoiding them seems futile.

I’ve only seen one way out of this mess. The CCRB recently inaugurated an experimental mediation program, inviting selected complainants and cops to meet under the supervision of a trained civilian monitor. Complainants like it because instead of navigating a massive bureaucracy they get to confront the officer face to face and hear an explanation for the offending actions. Cops like it because it gives them a shot at getting the charge removed from their records. Mediation was tried last year in 29 cases, and in 28 of them, a successful conclusion was reached: The complainant agreed that his grievance was addressed by the officer, and the complaint was removed from the officer’s record. Obviously, not all complaints are suited to mediation. Some accusations will be too serious, some participants will be unwilling to compromise, and in some cases different versions of events will simply be irreconcilable. But mediation is a huge improvement over the current system, in which cop and civilian meet only in the heat of the moment and never get to discuss what happened afterward.

I still suspect my own civilian complaint was dishonest and vindictive. But after mulling it over for eight whole years, I can imagine why my accuser might have thought otherwise. Maybe he thought I was stopping him because he was a minority; maybe I didn’t explain my motivation well enough at the time. In any case, I sure wish we could sit down and talk about it sometime.