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Citizen Complaints and Problems Officers

Examining Officer Behavior

Chapter thirteen talks about the police being a public institution, that relies on a grant of legitimacy rooted in public trust and confidence. Complaints that become news events can wear away confidence among an even wider audience. This chapter provides the unique opportunity to combine citizen complaint data with actual observations. It examines the behavior of identified problem officers, as well as whose who are not labeled as such.
Systematic research on police misconduct suggests most citizen complaints are generated by a handful of officers. In 1991, the Christopher Commission released its review of the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots (Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, 1991). From its investigation, the Commission reported that a small group of officers were responsible for a disproportionate number of citizen complaints. Forty-four officers who had six or more allegations of excessive force or improper tactics were identified and labeled “problem officers.” It stands to reason that officers who repeatedly receive citizen complaints will be looked upon with suspicion, reflecting the saying- “where there’s smoke there’s often fire.”

Perspectives on Citizen Complaints and Problem Officers
As a result of the adversarial nature of the police-citizen relationship, situations arise in which avoidance of conflict is not an option.
Not every citizen willingly accepts an officer’s definition of a situation: instead, he or she may choose to rebel against or challenge the authority of the police officer. Van Maanen (1978) noted this type of citizen, termed “asshole” by police, was likely to receive street justice in the form of “thumping.” Though Van Maanen’s fieldwork took place three decades ago, police continue to confront citizens they label as “assholes” who challenge their authority (Mastrofski, Reisig, and McCluuskey, 1991). More precisely, “thumping” an “asshole” has garnered an increasing amount of both departmental and public attention (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993). At least three different perspectives on the meaning of citizen complaints are possible. First, it may be that citizen complaints tell us little to nothing because they are unreliable or invalid indicators of officer’s behavior. Two arguments can be made in this respect.
A citizen complaint is just that- a “citizen” complaint. It is the citizen’s view or perception that the officer acted illegally or improperly, which is unlikely to be informed by rules and procedures by police departments establishing uniform operating standards.

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