You know that, “Thin Blue Line of Silence”? The term that generally enrages the living daylights out of our cop friends, because (1) they’re absolutely ready to throw a crooked or out-of-control cop off the force, and (2) they also know that every complaint is investigated, no matter how frivolous. Despite the fact that cops often seem to be handled gently by internal investigations (kind of like the way the bar association acts as enabler for corrupt lawyers), Matt, a career officer, knew that in his department, an out-of-line deputy was a lot more likely to be stopped by a fellow deputy. He FOIA’d the statistics that he thought would prove that, as he said, “the ‘cops don’t rat on other cops’ line is nothing but hogwash.” Sure, he admits, that has happened at times, but he resents the hell out of the idea that all cops do it.
And the numbers, which he published at The Bang Switch, seem to back him up.
In an effort to spread the truth, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to my own department regarding internal affairs complaints. What I specifically requested was, for the last five (5) years, the number of complaints and whether or not they were substantiated. But beyond those simple numbers, I asked to have the numbers split between public complaints filed and those filed internally, you know, the cops who always cover for dirty cops.
Here are the raw numbers, in a graphic:
If you were to look at just the statistics from public complaints, it would most certainly look like we were protecting our own due to the massive percentage of unsubstantiated complaints (98%). It would still somewhat have that appearance if you were to just look at the total number of complaints as a whole (16%). However, what I find most interesting is not only the number of internal complaints, but the significantly higher percentage of those complaints being substantiated. Internal affairs complaints, filed by other deputies occurred an average of 1/3 as often as complaints filed by the public, yet they have a 2,500% better chance of being substantiated (50% substantiated for internal complaints vs. 2% for public complaints).
To us, the most telling thing is not that the internal complaints were more likely to be substantiated — there could be many reasons for this. For example, conduct might have to be worse to motivate cops to file a complaint rather than try to resolve it face-to-face with a brother officer, compared to conduct that would motivate a civilian to file. And officers, unlike civilians, face consequences for a false or fabricated complaint. These consequences can be informal but serious (getting known as that guy in the department) or formal and serious (criminal charges, and/or dismissal). No, to us the most interesting details were that:
- The amount of complaints stayed fairly steady over five years;
- Internal complaints came in at a rate of 1/4 to 1/3 of overall complaints — many more than we would expect;
- The percentage of complaints sustained had relatively small variability year-on-year (excluding incomplete 2014).
You could consider it just a part of the job, if you ran that department: “Every year, we’re going to get a couple hundred of complaints from civilians and 50-80 complaints in-house — a few of the civilian complaints will point to our problem children, but half or more of the in-house complaints will.”
Just because someone filed a complaint, of course, doesn’t mean anything actually happened. Some criminals routinely file police brutality complaints, and some ministers and community organizers dealing with criminal communities encourage this. Prisoners in jails and houses of corrections have time on their hands and frequently listen to cellblock lawyers and jailhouse rumors promoting legal urban legends, generating a steady stream of invalid and frivolous complaints. Yet all these have to be investigated… just because a guy is a liar and convict, doesn’t mean he has lost all his rights.