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Mark Clark

Mark Clark

Mark Clark is the public information officer for a law enforcement agency in the southwest. He is also a photographer and contributor to POLICE Magazine.
Patrol

Countering Complaints

Conflict resolution in the field.

February 22, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions. No good deed goes unpunished.

There is no shortage of truisms to suggest that you're better off not tempering justice with mercy and being a merciless hardass 24/7. But the fact remains, most people appreciate the occasional verbal warning. Certain, quite a few of us extend the occasional amnesty to one another under the umbrella of "professional courtesy." And most of the time, it doesn't come back to bite us in the hind quarters. Indeed, most citizens are genuinely surprised and appreciative to find out that we weren't quite the jackbooted thugs that they'd anticipated we might be.

But then there are those who, whether or not they've been given a break, are hell-bent on trying to extract their pound of flesh for some perceived slight. Often, it has to do with the fact that we had the temerity to detain them in the first place. No matter how justified the detention, no matter how strong the probable cause, no matter how polite we may have been, they just aren't satisfied.

We've all received the summons, "You're needed in the watch commander's office." In the moment we hear those words, we already know what it's about: some son of a bitch called and beefed me.

Fortunately, rarely do their complaints come as total surprises. It was probably communicated in the shit-eating grin they flashed at you as they stalked back to their car or peddled away on their bicycle. Something in their manner that said, "OK, if you want to play that game..."

Well, if we're going to play the game, then we'd better be keyed into the signals like any good coach. More importantly, we'd better act on them. What this boils down to is if you anticipate that someone is going to complain about you, give them something to complain about.

I don't mean to justify their complaint, but to document the transgression that put them on your radar in the first place. If you pulled him over for a traffic violation, scratch a docket. If they were high on meth, take their ass to jail. In those circs where you don't have enough for an arrest, make sure you have enough for a detailed log entry explaining the basis for your detention.

As a supervisor, I was unpleasantly surprised by how many guys wouldn't do something to mitigate the likelihood of getting a complaint, or at least cover their ass in making sure that the complaint would not be founded.

Protect yourself. If you don't already have a concealable digital recorder, get one. If you have one, use it (stock up on those AAA batteries). If the situation seems to be getting off to a rough start, treat any citizens in the area as an actor playing a protagonist in a drama would (which shouldn't be much of a stretch for even the least thespian-inclined as it pretty much boils down to what you're doing anyway). Develop their sympathies and be as patient as possible.

Having a field supervisor respond to the scene can help. For one, they can do conflict resolution. For another, if the supervisor fails to mollify them, then he might succeed in pissing off the complainant even more so that you look positively angelic by comparison. That's why they get paid the big bucks.

In any event, you want someone to run some interference for you before it gets to the watch commander's attention. Many agencies have adopted such asinine anal retentive measures that effectively remove all discretion from the hands of the acting station commander. This is what finds beefs from wackos who allege that some cop stole their ovaries being more than just an interesting anecdote from Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Station, but a true life adventure of fictive paranoia.

Kahlil Gibran said that most hover dubiously between mute rebellion and prattling submission. It's sad to think that in our world, they might be the good ones.


Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

bfindlay@chp.ca.gov @ 2/23/2008 8:07 PM

Some thoughts I pass on to my officers over the last 15 years as a patrol supervisor:
1. If you look for an 'A-hole' in every violator you meet, you WILL find one. And it's usually full of crap that ends up on you.
2. Treat others as you would want a member of your family to be treated under the same circumstances, and you will rarely end up being the subject of a complaint. (One caveat - every family tree has some sap in it!)
3. If you feel a person is going to complain, call me to the scene ASAP. I've squelched numerous potential complaints just by talking with the disgruntled party.
4. Consider disengaging from a verbal argument as a tactical move to de-escalate the situation. Your #1 goal = go home safe!

Louis Dirker @ 2/25/2008 9:31 AM

I took over as chief of my current department abotu 5 years ago. They have an article in teh contract that states that complaints have to be in writing and followed up by Internal Affairs. This is a medium sized suburban department. I started sending phoned in complaint to the Shift Commanders for resolution. Initially this brought some heat on my, but now it is accepted. We have cut doen the number of "formal" complaints (my term for written complaints) to next to nothing while we have resolved the intial complaint in over 99% of the cases. Most people just want to vent and most feel that requiring them to file and sign a written complaint is our method for making it difficult to complain.

e_moore @ 2/27/2008 10:05 AM

I agree that a tape recorder would be helpful in a situation, but be sure to check laws first. I know in my state recording a two party conversation without consent of both parties is illegal. We are beginning to get in car cameras, and when we get them, when we contact people we have to notify them that they are subject to being videotaped and recorded. Even if you don't have a tape recorder just telling someone that they are being recorded usually calms them down. They may also not want to call and complain, if they know the supervisor can watch the incident on tape and get the WHOLE story....

David Moore S-55 @ 3/3/2008 9:11 PM

Excellent Article!! - Recalling from memory so may be off a bit on details...I recall reading a few years back about a CA Officer who made a traffic stop, ran the person turned out to be a parole violator. Went to hook him up found a loaded pistol in seat of vehicle and arrestee had the drop on this officer, and with nothing to lose. Officer asked him about weapon and what kept him from using. The offender told the Officer - he treated him respectfully with dignity even as a parolee. For every action there is a reaction...better good then bad...And this may not work all the time as some have shown total disregard for human life and authority...Stay Safe and Aware! Thanks for another fine article from within...Dave

irishone @ 3/7/2008 4:26 PM

I think another issue with cops who work patrol is that, they think every person they meet is STUPID, and with this the call kiss off commences. It happens with deputies in my city and needless to say...they must be straightened out. Not all civilians are so out of the loop that they do not know what is going on, or how things are supposed to be done. Complaints are NOT made out of revenge, they are made out of seeking some form of justice. So, if justice and revenge are the same, so be it. Cops need to treat people with respect, do their jobs, and they will get the respect they seek.

irishone @ 3/7/2008 4:32 PM

I remember when Don Jackson pulled his sting in Long Beach many years ago and how he was hated and reviled by his fellow cops. Instead of looking at Don Jackson aka Diop Kamul as a bad guy, look at him as a person doing law enforcement a huge favor by going after the unprofessional cops who make everyone who tries to do the job right....look bad. Go to his website; policeabuse.org and watch some of the videos of his stings. But, when you watch them, take your cop hat off and look at what is really going on within these videos. There are some lessons to be learned from him and his videos.

hcso3517 @ 3/12/2008 6:55 AM

I agree with the old saying, "treat people how you would want to be treated". But there are still some people that no matter what you do or say they are not going to be happy. I once had a guy accuse myself and another officer of assaulting his wife. This ofcourse did not happen. When requested, he declined to provide a written statement or polygraph. I told the investigating supervisor that I would gladly take a polygraph. The supervior decided to drop close the case as the "complainant" no longer wished for anything to be "done", having been requested for polygraph and statement. Now, I would like to know when supervisors are going to start doing something about people making false alligations against officers? In my state this is a crime and I have never heard of it being enforced. People are quick to point the finger at officers when alleged of some type of misconduct but how often do you hear of anything if the officer is found not to have been in the wrong, but the allegations were found to be untrue?? No finger pointing goes to the direction of the false accuser does it??

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