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Police expert says improvements needed in law enforcement complaint process

Posted at 1:05 PM, Dec 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-17 21:25:44-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Tracking citizen complaints about law enforcement is a requirement of California law. However, some say there needs to be a significant improvement in that process.

"Police officers have tremendous authority," said former police officer and criminal justice professor Kevin LaChapelle.

He broke down how the process works.

"[In] a formal complaint, there should be written documentation and the agency is accountable for reporting that to the Department of Justice," LaChapelle said.

LaChapelle says the formal complaint process differs from an informal complaint, where someone may talk to an officer or supervisor but no documentation is required. Those interactions are not included in DOJ numbers.

When it comes to two of the largest departments in the county, Team 10 found the number of complaints differ drastically.

In 2018, the San Diego Sheriff's Department reported nine complaints. In 2017, there were six reported complaints.

San Diego Police Department reported 74 complaints last year. In 2017, there were 97 reported to the DOJ.

Each department reports to the state both substantiated and unsubstantiated complaints.

“There’s variation in the reporting. That is probably where the challenge is,” LaChapelle said. “Where you see disparity, where you have one agency that has hundreds of complaints and another agency of a similar size that has 6 or 7, you have to start saying that seems a little bit peculiar.”

Nobody from the DOJ would speak over the phone regarding complaint requirements or what happens if an agency does not submit this information. A spokesperson instead pointed Team 10 to this link, which outlines its policy.

The policy for collecting information is up to the "discretion" of the agency. This method could affect the number of complaints in either direction — more or less.

A 2019 report by the Racial & Identity Profiling Advisory Boardalso said agencies should have an "accessible, fair, and transparent complaint process," but LaChapelle said those requirements are not enough.

"I think what's missing is I think this data should be aggregated and trended so agencies can get a report card of how it is that they're doing compared to other agencies so they can use tha tto deploy different training and strategies and tactics to reduce these complaints," LaChapelle said.

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