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Paul Clinton

Paul Clinton

As the POLICE Web editor, Paul Clinton contributes posts about patrol cars, motorcycles, and other police vehicles. He previously wrote about automotive electronics as managing editor of Mobile Electronics. Prior to that, he was an award-winning newspaper reporter.



William Harvey

William Harvey

William "Bill" Harvey is currently serving as chief of police in south central Pennsylvania. He retired from the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.
Careers

Weathering Complaints

If you're professional and truthful, this too will pass.

December 05, 2007  |  by William Harvey - Also by this author

If you do your job you will get plenty of complaints and only rarely receive compliments; these are the realities of policework. But how you handle or survive these unpleasantries of life is what is important here. There are a few pointers I can give you. Like them or not, these tips won't speed up the process, but they may help with your overall complaint survival.

Tell the Truth

One of life's lessons from childhood also holds true in investigations. If I ask you a question today and contact you again later with the same question, will I get the same truth? As I was taught as a young lad, "If you tell the truth the first time, then you never have to remember what you told."

In other words, don't get tripped up by a falsehood you forgot to cover. If you get nailed for lying on an official investigation, this will be the end of a career. If you know or feel that a complaint is coming from a call or contact, prepare now. If you wrote an accurate report with all of the facts, you should be solid. Have on hand all of the names, numbers, and other contact information for all possible witnesses, which includes officers.

Give your supervisor a head's up that something may be coming over the horizon. This prevents surprises and may give your supervisor an opportunity to do some damage control as well. Now, do not be a chicken little and scream "The sky is falling!" with every field contact. As you become seasoned you will get a feel for when and when not to be worried.

If you do have a good reason to expect a complaint over an incident, sit down and recall the entire event; then document all you observed, said, or did. It is not what you do that can get you into trouble, but whether you document why you did what you did.

There are two caveats to this statement. One is that if what you said was composed with improper or unprofessional language, there may be no excuse; accept what you get, for you said it. Remember, if you have the urge to tell someone off because it will make you feel good, then don't say it! Secondly, if you have acted in a professional manner and within all guidelines, any citizen abuse cannot be tolerated.

It's Business, Not Personal

Oftentimes, complaints are not centered around the officer but the circumstances. Somebody got arrested, got a ticket, or whatever. Despite all logic, the person wants to kill the messenger instead of dealing with the facts at hand: this person was criminally wrong. So, if such a person complains, it might just go away. Complaining without cause is an old trickery and still used frequently.

Do not become emotional and let this get you down. I have seen some younger officers go insane over their first complaint. If you did your job and followed your training and departmental guidelines, you should weather the storm. Don't let this ruin the rest of your personal life. Go out and continue with the routine. Get in your workouts and stay healthy. Don't get into some alcohol-fueled daze. Don't get in a rut, withdraw from your friends and colleagues, or become a troll. Your health and emotional support are paramount.

When it comes time to go to the commander or Internal Affairs, be professional. Follow the guidelines and know your rights as well. If I can only tell you this, be honest. I have seen some officers who were cleared or could have been cleared, but since they got caught up in a lie they reaped the penalties of giving false information or showing dishonesty during an official investigation. Don't set yourself up for this fall.

Like all the storms of life, a complaint will pass in time. The majority of the public and media will forget all about it and this too will pass. As my old sergeant told me, police complaints are like playing baseball. When it is all said and done, you will be sliding into home safe. The "powers that be" will attempt a pick-off play on some other poor guy trying to steal second base, and you will be called "safe." Just stay the course and be professional.

Tags: Career Advancement


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

j706 @ 12/6/2007 11:06 PM

Outstanding article. I always try to treat people with respect and dignity, even those I arrest. I seem to get ,what I feel, are more than my share of complaints. I would even go back and review my in car video to try to understand. I was troubled by every single one of them. I would have to write a narrative about the incident. Sometimes, the complaints were not even written, just verbal. For a while, I just stopped being pro active. I decided it just was not worth it. The complaints went to zero. Then a new chief came in. I went back to work. I worked like I always knew I should have been before. The difference? This new chief had been in law enforcement for thirty years. He already knew what this article is passing on. He told me once "if an officer is not getting complaints, he/she is not doing their job". He is not afraid to offend someone, he does not play the political game. He sticks up for his officers. Rare these days it seems. I still get complaints. I never even hear about them now. I just wish more chiefs would read this article and understand it. Another important thing I came to understand is, once people found out the complaint thing didn't work any longer, the complaints dropped off significantly. They had learned that if you complain to the chief, the officer would hear about it and they might get out of a ticket or some other action. They learned that officers would be a little less likely to take enforcement actions. It made them feel good. Some citizens had filed as many as ten complaints in one year, on different officers!! One of them is now in prison! Chiefs-stick up for your troops.

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