Complaint Process for Police Abuse
Gannett News Service published results of a survey a few years ago. From 1985 to 1993, in 100 cases in which law enforcement agencies lost more than $100,000 in police brutality lawsuits — only eight of the 185 officers named in the lawsuits were disciplined. Of the remaining, 17 were promoted. Go figure.
Santa Cruz County law enforcement officers are like most law enforcement groups – in fact like any group – there are great individuals and lousy ones. Personally, I would like to see our cops paid more – attract and keep the best and send the others packing.
In my view, Santa Cruz County law enforcement is better than most, but that is because we as a community do care and insist on high standards of conduct for people we entrust with so much power.
Complaints: the City of Santa Cruz had a Citizens Police Review Board for several years beginning in 1995. This board was created by the City Council after almost five years of community organizing and political lobbying by many concerned citizens. A group called the Coalition for a Police Review Commission established in 1991, led the movement. I was a member of this organization. Unfortunately the Commission was shut down due to budget cuts. I believe the knowledge that citizens have independent oversight over police helps keep officers from going over the line.
Without a civilian review board — we are left with the police agency’s own internal affairs department. If you want to complain about an officer’s behavior, whether it relates to excessive force, lying in a police report, racial or gender intolerance, whatever, you must go to the police/ sheriff department involved and ask for a complaint form. You then can file that form with their internal affairs department. They must accept and keep your complaint — even if they don’t find your complaint about the officer is valid — the complaint stays in the officer’s file. If enough complaints are lodged, pretty soon the department has to begin paying attention. More importantly, sometimes, an attorney for someone else who has been similarly abused can “discover” or get your complaint and use that to help her/ his client. Remember though: if you have a case pending, you shouldn’t file a complaint until clearing it with your attorney. It is usually better to wait until a case is done before filing a complaint. Talk with an attorney to best understand this process.
Lawsuits For Police Misconduct
Many reasonable people have concluded that the best response to police abuse is to sue them. It is often hard to get an attorney to be interested in a case. This can be for a lot of reasons. The cases take a lot of time and money and the amount of recovery may be small. One remedy open to people who cannot get an attorney’s help is filing in Small Claims court. There the officer and his or her agency can be sued for up to $7,500.00. Here is a link to a State of California self help site re. small claims.
It is essential to keep in mind that a claim must be filed with the governmental agency for whom the officer works within six months of the incident. For example, if it is a sheriff deputy, the claim must be filed with the county within six months; a city cop – with that city; a CHP – with the state.
Assuming the claim is denied (certainly what happens 99% of the time) then a lawsuit must be filed within one year of the incident. That rule is absolute also.
A sample claim form (which can be used no matter where you intend to file your law suit) is available here.