Here's What Happens When You Complain To Cops About Cops

The internal affairs division usually decides the officer did nothing wrong.

When I set foot inside a McDonald's in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson on Aug. 13, 2014, I had never been arrested and I'd never had a real complaint about police behavior. So when a St. Louis County officer forcefully arrested me, slammed my head against a door as he escorted me out of the restaurant (and sarcastically apologized for it), and ignored my repeated requests for his name or badge number, I honestly expected that he'd be held accountable for his actions.

My arrest, and that of The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery at the same time, dramatically increased attention on the flawed and unconstitutional tactics used by police in Ferguson following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder said journalists shouldn't be "harassed" while covering a story, and President Barack Obama said police "should not be bullying or arresting journalists."

I wasn't naive. I knew police officers are rarely punished. And what happened to me hardly compared to the abuses I witnessed inflicted upon people who didn't have the benefit of a national media platform. But surely, I thought, the St. Louis County Police Department would take such high-profile misconduct seriously.

With that in mind, and at the suggestion of a St. Louis County Police Department spokesman, I filed a complaint with the department's internal affairs office about a week after my arrest.

Going to internal affairs, otherwise known as the Bureau of Professional Standards, seemed like the logical step. I was most interested in the name of the officer who arrested me and an apology, both of which I anticipated receiving within 90 days, the time frame in which St. Louis County aims to process citizen complaints.

Today, more than a year later, Wesley and I are facing charges. Like other Americans who file complaints with internal affairs departments, I found there is little transparency about what happens when a citizen files a complaint and lots of uncertainty about the outcome. There are no national or state standards governing the internal affairs process. Complaint procedures can seem -- and often explicitly are -- designed to protect cops rather than fairly adjudicate citizen complaints. Most people who go through the process don't get an apology, let alone accountability. And in some places -- including St. Louis County, where I was arrested -- citizens' faith in police is so damaged that many don't bother filing complaints in the first place.

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13, 2014.
A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13, 2014.
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

The roughly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies operating across the United States employ more than 1.1 million people, the vast majority of whom are sworn officers. Most of those agencies have some process allowing citizens to file complaints against those officers.

But "there’s really no good research on internal affairs units, which is amazing," said Samuel Walker, a nationally recognized expert on policing who has worked with departments across the country. "Do they report directly to the chief? How are they selected? How many investigators do they have, given the size of the department? There's a really critical void in our understanding of what they do, what kinds of training they get."

The country is in a "total fog of ignorance" when it comes to how internal affairs divisions work, Walker said, and that adds to the "deep distrust" that some people have in the police. "They see officers they know have engaged in excessive force and so on, and they see them still on the force and not disciplined," Walker said.

There's a lot of variation in how departments around the U.S. handle complaints. "From the agencies I've worked with, I've never seen any two that look very much alike," said George Fachner, a research scientist at the CNA Corporation who has studied police policies on use of force and misconduct. "There's really no general practice, other than the fact that agencies tend to have an internal affairs unit and they tend to investigate officers for misconduct. Once you get past that, you're going in a lot of different directions."

“The country is in a "total fog of ignorance" when it comes to how internal affairs departments work.”

In New York City, which has some 34,500 uniformed officers, the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board issues monthly reports on how many complaints it receives, how long the investigations take, and what percentage are found credible. In small police departments with only a handful of officers, police chiefs investigate and decide whether punishment is appropriate.

Some police departments have internal affairs divisions that work alongside civilian review boards, others have civilian review boards that serve as a check on the activity of the internal affairs division, and still others have oversight groups that operate independently of the police. Some civilian review systems use civilian volunteers; others have full-time professionals.

Even basic statistics on the number of complaints against police are hard to come by. A federal survey found that just 8 percent of the use-of-force complaints received by large state and local law enforcement agencies in 2002 were deemed credible -- they were "sustained," in cop lingo. Most experts who have studied internal affairs think that rate is much lower than it would be if the process weren't in many ways designed to protect officers.

Source: Department of Justice/The Huffington Post

"It's a horrible, horrible situation we've got ourselves in, where it's always the police officer who is telling the truth -- because we know that isn't true," said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who co-wrote a book on police accountability systems with Jeff Noble, a former deputy police chief. "So many of these things we've seen on video lately ... you read the report and that's not what the video shows."

“"It's a horrible, horrible situation we've got ourselves in, where it's always the police officer who is telling the truth -- because we know that isn't true."”

- Geoffrey Alpert

Even basic assumptions about police disciplinary systems -- that citizen oversight results in more accountability, for example -- arise more out of anecdotal evidence and conventional wisdom than any type of formal study. Federal investigations into police departments suggest that when a law enforcement agency has problems, failures in the internal affairs process usually play a role.

The Ferguson Police Department, for example, lacked "any meaningful system for holding officers accountable when they violate law or policy," actively discouraged citizens from filing complaints, and assumed officers were telling the truth and complainants were not "even where objective evidence indicates that the reverse is true," according to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. In Cleveland, where just 51 officers from a force of 1,500 were disciplined "in any fashion in connection with a use of force incident" over 3.5 years, those investigating the use of force admitted to DOJ that they conducted their inquiries with the "goal of casting the accused officer in the most positive light possible." The Albuquerque Police Department failed to "implement an objective and rigorous internal accountability system," according to a DOJ report. In New Orleans, just 5.5 percent of civilian complaints were sustained by a team that had no special training in internal affairs, another federal investigation found. In Newark, New Jersey, barely 5 percent of civilian complaints were sustained between 2010 and 2012, according to a DOJ report. Investigators in Newark "routinely failed to probe officers' accounts or assess officer credibility." They gave weight to the criminal history of complainants but discounted the disciplinary history of officers, including one officer with 40 use-of-force incidents over six years, the federal investigators found.

Source: Department of Justice/The Huffington Post

The federal study of citizen complaints pointed to the influence of police unions as one factor: Complaints were sustained 15 percent of the time at law enforcement agencies that had to collectively bargain with employees, more than twice the 7 percent rate at agencies that didn't collectively bargain.

Ultimately, the strength of an internal affairs process depends on the person in charge, experts say.

"It really comes down to whether a police chief wants to do the right thing. In some jurisdictions, not so much. In other jurisdictions, people are real standouts," said Jeff Noble, the former deputy chief of the Irvine Police Department in California who has written extensively on police misconduct, including the book with Alpert.

“"It really comes down to whether a police chief wants to do the right thing."”

- Jeff Noble

One major hurdle for police accountability is that citizens often don't bother to file complaints because they don't think their concerns would be taken seriously. There is little motivation for police departments to encourage civilians to complain, experts say, and many internal affairs officers either implicitly or explicitly make it difficult for citizens to air their grievances.

In 2013, the year before the unrest in Ferguson, the St. Louis County Police Bureau of Professional Standards received 69 citizen complaints, about the same number it had received in prior years. Officials reported that number as an accomplishment, citing the gap between the number of complaints and the numbers of arrests (more than 26,000) and citizen contacts (more than 1.6 million) as proof that police personnel "continue serving the community in a very professional manner" and the agency "has continued to take positive measures to reduce and eliminate citizen complaints."

By that logic, 2014 -- the year that St. Louis County Police led the initial law enforcement response to the unrest in Ferguson -- was a fantastic success for the agency: Only 26 citizens filed complaints, a stunning 62 percent drop from the previous year. Given the extraordinarily controversial -- and unconstitutional -- tactics deployed by police officers during the Ferguson protests, it's unlikely those figures mean anything at all.

St. Louis County Police reported receiving just a single formal complaint about officer behavior during the protests of August 2014. An after-action report pointed to two factors for that: It was "difficult or impossible to lodge complaints," and there was "a lack of confidence" in the complaint process. But even the low number of citizen complaints received in the years before the Ferguson protests -- 64 in 2012 and 69 in 2013 -- is nothing to brag about, experts say.

"I would be suspicious of those numbers," Noble said. "That's just too many officers, 800 officers -- you're only getting 60 complaints? The first thing I would want to look at is their complaint policy. What are they required to accept as a complaint? Who is required to accept it?"

Noble said he once worked with a city police department that had close to 2,000 officers. That agency claimed it received only 30 complaints over the course of a year, less than half the number of complaints typically received in a year by his former department in Irvine, which had a force of just 200.

"I mean, that's just laughable. It's absurd. What it tells me is that they're not classifying everything as a complaint, they're not accepting, they're discouraging," Noble said.

One federal survey found that among individuals who reported having force used against them or being threatened with force in 2008, 84 percent felt that police had acted improperly, but only 14 percent of that group actually filed a complaint.

"If you don't get many complaints at a department, that might mean that, yes, the department is very good, officers are performing well," said Walker, the policing expert. "But it could also mean that trust in the complaint process is so deep that nobody bothers to complain."

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar wrote that the department lacked "conclusive facts" to take action in this reporter's case.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar wrote that the department lacked "conclusive facts" to take action in this reporter's case.
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

The first sign that my complaint to the St. Louis County Police Department might not be taken seriously came just after I'd finished filling out the complaint form. I told the official who accepted my complaint at the Office of Professional Standards that while the officer in question had refused to identify himself, I had photos of him on my iPhone. I had already tweeted the photos, but I assumed they would want to pull the images from my device or have me send the original files via email. But the office wasn't going to make it easy. Instead, I was told I'd have to turn in printed copies. So I pulled out my phone, mapped the route to the nearest copy center, walked there to print out the photos and then walked back to drop them off.

An initial letter acknowledging my complaint was followed by months of silence. The department failed to meet its goal of responding within 90 days. Six months passed, then eight, then 10. In the meantime, several public records requests failed to unearth the name of the officer who arrested me.

A few months ago, I confirmed his name -- Michael McCann -- after it came up in a lawsuit filed against the police by other people he'd arrested. With a bit of digging, I learned that McCann had previously been suspended without pay by the St. Louis County Police after he allegedly crashed his patrol car through a fence in a residential neighborhood and fled the scene.

In June, more than 10 months after my arrest, I received a letter from St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. In the letter, which was carefully vetted by St. Louis County lawyers, Belmar wrote that a "very thorough investigation" had produced "conflicting versions of what occurred."

McCann had denied slamming my head against the door, and Belmar's internal affairs team claimed that the McDonald's security footage did not definitively show what had happened. So Belmar -- "based on the absence of conclusive facts" -- had ordered the investigation closed.

"I would, however, like to thank you for bringing this matter to my attention," he wrote. A recent independent assessment of Belmar's department found a "pattern of light discipline in investigations involving ethical failings and untruthfulness."

In August, a few weeks after I was charged, the St. Louis County Police Department promoted Michael McCann to sergeant.

Based upon the recommendation of the St. Louis County Police Department, the St. Louis County Counselor's Office filed charges against Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly in August 2015 for allegedly "trespassing" and "interfering" with police officers nearly a year earlier. Lowery and Reilly have said they were wrongfully arrested since the day they were taken into custody, and are fighting the charges.

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