Police and Fire Commission: Citizen Complaints

One measures the strength and honesty of an organization not merely by what it asserts, but by its willingness to allow others to test its assertions, so that it might be open to better practices. It is in this way that the lack of an authentic, accountable citizen complaint process illustrates so much of what it wrong with the Whitewater Police Department’s organizational culture. Our present citizen complaints process is hollow.

The U.S. Justice Department, in its 2001 paper entitled, Principles for Promoting Police Integrity, set up good and effective standards for local departments to use when handling citizen complaints. That makes sense: a good department should have nothing to hide, and should always seek a fair hearing for the citizens it is sworn to protect. One who trumpets his integrity and nobility should not hide from a fair, open examination of it.

Here are the basic guidelines for an authentic citizen complaint process from the Justice Department paper:

1. Perception of Fairness. “Agencies should provide a readily accessible process in which community and agency members can have confidence that complaints against agency actions and procedures will be given prompt and fair attention.”

2. Complaint Forms. Civilians should be allowed to file complaints in-person, by mail, by telephone, by facsimile transmission, or, where possible, by e-mail. A complaint form should be offered, but completion of the form should not be required to initiate a complaint. Individuals should be able to obtain and file complaint forms at places other than law enforcement agencies.

3. Officers and other employees should be prohibited from refusing to accept complaints, or attempting to dissuade a civilian from filing a complaint. Civilians should not be required to meet with or speak with a supervisory officer as a requirement for filing a complaint.

4. Complaints should be accepted from all individuals, including those who request anonymity. Complaints should be accepted from third parties to ensure that witnesses of abuse or misconduct can file complaints as well as victims of such misconduct.

5. Knowledgeable Investigator. Misconduct investigations of serious misconduct allegations, including allegations of excessive force, false arrest, improper search or seizure, or discriminatory law enforcement, should be conducted by an entity that has special responsibility for conducting misconduct investigations.

These sensible practices are far removed from the our practices for citizens in Whitewater.

There are three ways to make a citizen complaint in Whitewater, and all are far from a reasonable standard.

Email. Although the City of Whitewater website does not have a link to a citizen complain process, or any mention of one, there are a few email addresses that one could use. That’s not a process; it’s the absence of a process. A concerned citizen could write to a PFC member, or — amazingly — to a generic email box that goes to the police department.

No one who is truly concerned would take that approach. There’s not even a promise or assurance of how the email would be handled, who at the police department would address the email, or whether one or more PFC members might have a format to address citizen concerns.

When you link to a general email box, without a description of your rights and protections, here’s what it means:

The local organization is daring you to take a chance, knowing that ordinary people who believe that they have been injured will be too intimidated to speak up.

Serious professions like law and medicine have real and authentic processes for handling complaints. An email box without guarantees spelled out in writing is a sham, in which fragile or inexperienced people would be rightly intimidated. We’re like the proverbial southern town from the 1960s, in which the sheriff contends that everyone’s happy, because he has yet to hear of a single resident black or white resident speak up critically about his authority.

Here’s a snapshot of the main webpage page of the PFC:

The second way that once could complain is to attend a PFC meeting. That’s likely even more intimidating than a generic email box with no clear explanation of rights, timelines, etc.

In fact, in the last three years, the minutes of the PFC reveal that only one citizen, a business owner, appears to have offered citizen comments.

I am sure that Chief Coan would say that proves there are no other concerns. That’s nonsense: he presides over a process that is unfamiliar and intimidating to ordinary people, and then announces that their silence is proof of his excellence. (That’s why television in a city that expects complaints about police conduct at a public meeting is a terrible idea. There’s no initial confidentiality in that sort of avenue.)

It should be obvious that complaints about police conduct are more serious, and more intimidating to those who believe that they have been injured, than ordinary comments at a public meeting. It’s more than a concern about signs, banners, and code violations, after all.

Finally, I suppose, someone could walk into the Municipal Building during the day ,and try to file a complaint. A city with a real outreach program would tell people how to file a compliant, and what their rights are. We have nothing like that here — other cities in Wisconsin do, but not ours.

Even after the height of community anxiety after the Star Packaging raid, the Whitewater Police Department — weeks afterward, was able to contend that there were no complaints about its conduct. Of course not — those who were aggrieved had no reason to trust that — absent any normal mechanism for complaining — their voices would be hear, or that they would be treated fairly.

You may say whatever you want (I advocate free speech, after all). Do not expect, however, that the the sparse web page of the PFC will convince a person of normal understanding and intelligence that he or she can feel comfortable filing a complaint. Do not expect that the absurd idea of expecting people to walk into a PFC meeting, and complaining there, will work. We do not have few complaints because people are happy; we have few complaints because it’s to hard for people to speak up with sound assurance. Someone who speaks English as a second language would have even less reason to feel comfortable or trust our practices.

It was President Reagan who often advised to “trust, but verify.” What then of a system that cannot be verified, that has no real citizen complaints process worth its salt? Coan presides over a system in which citizen complaints are difficult, and in which he can contend that the absence of complaints proves the nobility, integrity, etc., of his force.

It is system in which a reasonable person will not have confidence.

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