Police departments across Connecticut routinely make it difficult for civilians to file complaints against their officers in a number of ways, including failing to make complaint forms available, refusing to accept anonymous complaints, imposing time limits on receiving complaints and requiring sworn statements or threatening criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit for false statements.
Those are the findings of a non-scientific survey conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and released Tuesday. The barriers to filing complaints that the ACLU cites in the study fly in the face of “best practices that are widely accepted by law enforcement experts,” on the processes police departments should follow for accepting civilian complaints, the agency said.
The findings, the ACLU said in a press release, “reveal a need for statewide standards to ensure that civilians with complaints about police misconduct will not be turned away, intimidated or silenced.”
“We’ve been hearing from too many people who have had difficulty filing complaints with their local police departments,” said David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut, who supervised the study. “We rely on the police for our safety, and we’re grateful for their service. But we also entrust police officers with extraordinary authority, including the power to use deadly force, and this must be balanced by accountability, with a clear and reliable method for civilians to register their concerns about police conduct.”
The ACLU report was based on a telephone survey of 104 Connecticut police departments and agencies, including 92 municipal departments and the state’s 12 police barracks. (You can view a PDF of the agency's findings above.) Researchers conducted the survey by calling and requesting information about how to file a complaint against an officer.
At State Police Troop E, which serves East Lyme, ACLU researchers were told that complaint forms were available only online, that a complaint could not be made anonymously, and that immigration would be called if the complainant was here illegally.
At State Police Troop F, which serves Old Lyme and Lyme, ACLU researchers were told that there were no complaint forms available, although a complaint could be made anonymously, and after that the officer responding refused to answer further questions.
This runs counter to how law enforcement experts say police departments should handle complaints against officers. The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies is particularly clear that anonymous complaints must be accepted, requiring a written policy that “all complaints against the agency or its employees be investigated, to include anonymous complaints.”
Police departments are required to make complaint forms available and should ideally give people a variety of ways to file a complaint, including over the phone. Immigration status should also have no bearing on a person's right to bring a complaint.
The survey found that:
Twenty-three percent of municipal police departments (excluding state police) reported having no complaint form for civilians to fill out.
Sixty-one percent of the municipal police agencies in Connecticut told callers they don’t accept anonymous complaints, although law-enforcement policy experts strongly agree that police should accept complaints made anonymously. Another 10 percent could not or would not answer the question about anonymous complaints.
Nearly two-thirds of the complaint forms posted online by municipal police departments in Connecticut contain warnings of criminal prosecution for those making false complaints, though such action is widely considered a deterrent to those with legitimate complaints.
Nearly half the complaint forms posted online by municipal police departments in Connecticut mention a requirement for complainants to file a sworn statement, though law enforcement policy experts recommend strongly against demanding such statements. Employees at several departments without online forms also mentioned the requirement to ACLU callers.
Just a third of the departments in the survey clearly stated that immigration authorities would not be called against a civilian complainant. More than half did not answer or expressed some degree of uncertainty and 15 percent said they would definitely report a complainant to immigration authorities.