In late August 2013, the ACLU of Utah began a study of twelve police departments from all over Utah. The study was modeled after a study by the ACLU of Connecticut which studied the complaint process of police departments. The goal for our study was to evaluate the situation of the complaint process of police officers in Utah. The sample group included departments that were diverse in location and size.
When an encounter between a civilian and a police officer goes wrong the complaint process is the beginning of repairing the relationship between the public and the police. The complaint process can also be the first step in discrimination, deterrence, and intimidation if departments do not put enough care into creating and enforcing fair policies. The effort to maintain a fair complaint process benefits the police departments’ reputation and allows for opportunities to correct mistakes made by officers before they become habits.
In the course of our research, a variety of problems became clear. Concerns over accessibility came from several issues. In many jurisdictions it took multiple calls to to gather all of the information needed. Out of twelve departments surveyed, 50% required more than one call to complete the survey. Also, 33.3% of the twelve departments required more than one day to complete the survey. In addition, the difficulty of locating a non-emergency or complaint line number for some police departments caused concern over accessibility. 58.3% of departments surveyed had difficult to find non-emergency numbers. If a police department does not have a piece of information as basic as a complaint number easily available, many complainants will be kept from filing their complaint, even if a complaint system is in place.
The validity of information given varied between employees we happened to reach. During the survey, 41.7% of departments had employees who gave mixed messages to questions. For example, a mixed response to questions such as whether a complainant could file anonymously or whether there was a formal time limit to filing a complaint. It is disturbing to think that a complainant could receive false information, especially if the answer could stop a complainant from filing a complaint or cause a complaint to be dismissed.
A further concern was how some departments treated vulnerable groups such as non-English speakers and undocumented immigrants. Only one department said that they had forms available in Spanish. This is particularly important in jurisdictions with Spanish speaking populations. There was also evidence of insensitivity as one employee said “because we live in America you should speak English and also we would not be able to read them,” This employee worked at a department that did not have a Spanish form. When asked whether an undocumented immigrant would have immigration called on them, 25% of departments said that they would call and another 25% percent said that they were unsure whether or not they would call immigration on an undocumented immigrant. Regardless of a person’s status, their complaints are valid and necessary to communities and police departments. By denying protection to undocumented immigrants, police departments create a group of people that lack protection from abuse.
Although the majority of police departments we contacted need to improve, there is some good news. In the original study from Connecticut, several departments were labeled as hostile. In the study conducted in Utah, only two out of twelve studies were considered hostile. Additionally, in Utah, most departments did not require notarization of complaints and did allow multiple ways to file a complaint.
The ACLU of Utah applauds law enforcement agencies like the Provo Police Department and the Grand & San Juan Counties’ Highway Patrol Offices. They have helpful and consistent complaint processes in place.
Our complete findings and recommendations will be compiled into a report to be released later this year. More information about our work on law enforcement issues can be found on our website at www.acluutah.org/police-practices.
Know Your Rights
What To Do If You Are A Victim Of Police Misconduct in Utah
The ACLU of Utah is committed to stopping law enforcement abuse, wrongdoing, and racial profiling by officers. In order to do this, we need to know the types of problems occurring in the community. If you feel your rights have been violated please review our resources on our website at www.acluutah.org/need-help