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ACLU Report Finds Unsatisfactory Public Complaint Process In Utah’s Law Enforcement Agencies

Utah Law Enforcement Public Complaint Process Report 150528The ACLU of Utah recently issued a report analyzing how Utah law enforcement handles complaints from members of the public. Unfortunately, we found some troubling trends in the way Utah law enforcement agencies handle citizen complaints.

The report, "Opportunities for Trust Building: Overview and Recommendations for Law Enforcement’s Public Complaint Process,was prompted by numerous individuals who reached out to the ACLU of Utah to express frustration with the process involving county & city law enforcement agencies around the state.

To evaluate how well Utah law enforcement agencies handle complaints from the public, the ACLU of Utah conducted two studies. In one, our surveyor conducted an in-depth telephone study of 12 law enforcement offices from across the state, and in the second, we made a more general request to 106 agencies. We measured agency policy and practices with respect to public complaints against the consensus best practices and recommendations suggested by the experts. We concluded that none of the agencies we surveyed are in full compliance with these consensus best practices, and that all would benefit from taking the steps we recommend here.

Moreover, we found a lack of consistency among agencies we surveyed, with each agency accepting and processing citizen complaints in their own ways. For example, some agencies have standardized methods for accepting complaints, while others take an ad hoc approach. Some agencies have a policy of following up with complainants in every instance, while others do not.

Unfortunately, we found some troubling trends in the way Utah law enforcement agencies handle citizen complaints. Our three main areas of concern were as follows:

  1. Utah agencies too often create conditions of inaccessibility, which discourages the public from complaining.
  2. Utah agencies marginalize some populations and restrict their ability to access the complaint process.
  3. Several Utah agencies have internally inconsistent information about their public complaint processes.

We conclude that this failure to comply with best practices and because of the lack of uniformity, departments miss an opportunity to gain community trust and a better community climate. Accepting, investigating, and taking action on meritorious citizen complaints will alert agencies to problems with their own policies and practices and help them hold officers accountable for bad behavior. A citizen complaint process that discourages, ignores, or lets valid complaints slips through the cracks, however, denies the agencies valuable information and chances to improve.

Further, an effective public complaint process both empowers the public and increases trust. If members of the public see that law enforcement is hearing and reacting to their voices, there is no question of the positive impact on that relationship. On the other hand, a poorly designed or executed complaint process can be the first step in discrimination, deterrence, and intimidation of individuals who already feel wronged by police. In this way, a bad citizen complaint process can lead to distrust and a strained relationship between two groups meant to work together toward justice and peace.

It is in this context that we make various recommendations for positive change in Utah. We believe that taking these measures will improve the public complaint process, and thus improve the quality of law enforcement efforts in Utah and trust people have in the police.

Read the full report