As is its wont, the Los Angeles Times has published an article that seeks to portray police officers in a bad light. The headline writer is due credit, managing as he does to imply both sinister motives and undue defensiveness into a mere twelve words: “California police uphold few complaints of officer misconduct and investigations stay secret.” And if the headline wasn’t sufficient to draw the reader’s eye, the story was accompanied by a picture of a woman, fetchingly photographed, whose 2009 complaint to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was, at least at first, insufficiently investigated.
The woman, Tatiana Lopez, was arrested by sheriff’s deputies in 2009 and charged with possession of methamphetamine. She was ultimately cleared of the charge when her attorney proved, through recordings of sheriff’s radio transmissions, that she was never in the squad car where the deputies claimed the drugs were found. One of the involved deputies was fired and charged with perjury, but the case against him was dismissed in 2015 after two trials resulted in hung juries.
Lopez’s story is compelling and indeed troubling, but the retelling of it is misplaced in the Sept. 23 story, which laments the fact that California police departments upheld only 8.4 percent of the public complaints made between 2008 and 2017. The use of Lopez’s story in this context seems to invite the reader to infer that this figure is far too low and that police are not adequately investigating the complaints they receive. This has not been my experience.
For those not familiar with my history, I served with the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 30 years before retiring a few years ago and joining another police agency in a neighboring jurisdiction. For roughly the last half of my LAPD career I was a supervisor, in which capacity I had occasion to investigate personnel complaints and to act as a defense representative for accused officers. (I note here for the record I did not at any time work internal affairs; the investigations I conducted were ancillary to my ordinary duties.) In these roles I was able to witness the LAPD’s disciplinary system as it worked – and as it didn’t.
California law demands that police departments investigate personnel complaints and to report their number and dispositions to the state’s Department of Justice. To that end, departments establish internal affairs mechanisms to investigate, adjudicate, and report on the complaints they receive. In the LAPD, it was my experience that a great deal of time was spent on complaints that were facially specious even at first glance. I offer one example: While working as a patrol sergeant I responded to a request from two of my officers who were handling a radio call. The reporting party, a woman, had made a serious criminal allegation against a neighbor, one that might have resulted in his arrest and a legal nightmare. Fortunately for the neighbor, the entire incident was captured on a security video system, and when my officers viewed the tape they saw, beyond any doubt, that the incident had not happened as the woman described.
Despite this, the woman demanded the neighbor be arrested, prompting the officers to ask for my assistance in resolving the matter. I instructed the officers not to make an arrest, but to document the woman’s allegations in a crime report and to submit it with a copy of the security video. When detectives reviewed the report and the video, they declined to take further action and closed the case.
The woman found this unsatisfactory and filed a complaint, claiming that I, the two officers, the investigating detectives, and all our respective supervisors had perpetrated a miscarriage of justice in our failure to arrest a man for whom there wasn’t a shred of probable cause that would have justified it. I’m guessing the complaint investigation took up no less than 100 man hours when accounting for demands placed on the investigators and the accused officers, all because there was no mechanism that allowed someone in the chain of command to assess the complaint and say, “This is what you find in a cow pasture after the cows have left.”
I could go on at great length with similar tales, and every police officer across the country reading this could submit examples of his own. Police resources are finite, as is the time allotted to a police department’s many demands. The LAPD currently has about 130 sworn officers assigned to various entities within the internal affairs apparatus, most of whom are there because they believe it to be a path to further promotion (a belief that is all too often true). Add to these at least a hundred others assigned to patrol stations and other divisions but whose duties consist of nothing but investigating complaints. These officers might otherwise be patrolling the streets or investigating crimes. I once spent 65 hours investigating a complaint nearly as frivolous as the one described above, time that I might have spent identifying and arresting a burglar, a robber, or a murderer.
This is not to say that police complaints should not be investigated. Indeed, I’m all too aware that police officers make mistakes, sometimes through ignorance or poor training, other times through laziness or haste. And they sometimes act with malice. These transgressions should be thoroughly investigated and, when warranted, punished. But no discussion of police complaints is complete without an acknowledgment that they have become a weapon for those whose behavior brings them into conflict with police officers. I’ve seen too many officers whose careers were hobbled and their morale sapped by an accumulation of unfounded complaints lodged by gang members and other criminals.
And it’s important to note that even those involved in minor crimes sometimes make baseless complaints against police in an effort to escape punishment. In a week when we’ve been endlessly implored to “believe the women,” recall the case of Sherita Dixon-Cole, who earlier this year alleged that a Texas state trooper had sexually assaulted her after stopping her for drunk driving. The allegation was picked up in the press and widely circulated on social media before it was revealed that the entire encounter was captured on nearly two hours of body camera footage. After witnessing Brett Kavanaugh’s recent ordeal, imagine what that officer might have endured had he not recorded the arrest.
By all means, hold police officers accountable, but do not be troubled by the low number of validated complaints. From what I’ve seen in more than 30 years of police work, 8.4 percent sounds about right.