Given yesterday's announcement by the Colorado Springs Police Department of criminal charges against two of their own, we think it's time for a public dialogue about complaints of misconduct against police officers.
According to the CSPD's own General Orders, "Police officers must be free to exercise their best judgment and to initiate law enforcement actions in a reasonable, lawful and impartial manner without fear of reprisal. At the same time, all Department personnel have a primary obligation to respect the rights of all people."
In recent weeks, the Independent has reported findings by district judges that at least two other CSPD officers have abused the basic constitutional rights of Springs citizens. Department officials say they are investigating those cases internally, but no disciplinary measures have been taken at this time.
In one of those cases, and in the case of officer Michael Shive who was cited yesterday, the charges against the suspects being busted were dropped because of faulty procedure -- a cost in terms of dollars spent, time and energy exerted on the part of the police and a net loss of public confidence.
The CSPD has a formal complaint procedure that is outlined in their policy manual and in a blue brochure available at any police station. Lt. Steve Liebowitz of the department's Internal Affairs Division assured the Independent that citizen complaints can be received by mail, by e-mail, by telephone or in person.
But complaints to the CSPD by citizens are not compiled for any type of public review process. By law, the department is not required to compile statistics on the number of complaints of officer misconduct they receive each year, and by determination of perceived need, they do not. In many cases, records of complaints are purged from officers' records after six months.
In many cities, however, complaints against police officers are compiled and reviewed, either by citizens oversight committees or on a timely and regular basis by panels of high-ranking officers.
In last week's Independent, CSPD spokesman, Lt. Skip Arms said: "It is our feeling the community at large is comfortable with how the Colorado Springs Police Department deals with issues both internally and externally."
Maybe, but we're not so sure.
Why, for instance, are disciplinary records not available to the public when police officers represent an arm of government -- of the people, by the people and for the people?
Do current procedures weigh fairly the citizen's word against the word of the accused officer? A review of departmental procedure and the current complaint form shows that complainants must sign a statement that warns them of their criminal liability if they knowingly falsify claims. There is no obvious provision that holds the police officer liable for the same. In other words, as many citizens have complained to the Independent, it's your word against theirs. The burden of proof is placed on the individual citizen, and other officers are charged with the task of determining whether their co-workers are being truthful or not.
And how do we account for the number of citizens who do not file complaints because they fear repercussions? The CSPD's complaint brochure assures complainants that they "need not be concerned that they will be subject to retribution for legitimately stating a complaint, as procedures are in place to prevent this." It does not say, however, what those procedures may be.
We recently received a letter from a citizen so fearful that he, unfortunately, did not name himself and did not provide a return address. He told the story of how he was accosted by police while drinking a beer and walking a dog on private property, was locked up, taken to police headquarters, not charged or arrested but released to walk more than a mile home.
"Did I file a complaint?" the letter said. "Absolutely not. To whom would I do that? His buddies on the force? And make myself an even bigger target? No way."
No one, least of all this newspaper, would deny the police force's need to conduct their work without unnecessary interference. But secretive, insular practices, especially by a public institution, breed mistrust.
We need a complaint review system that will encourage citizens to act on their grievances and that will provide an early warning system of emerging abuse patterns within the department. We need assurance that citizen complaints will be weighed heavily and fairly. We need to know that the CSPD is determined to ferret out all bad cops and will apply the necessary discipline whenever it is warranted.
Yesterday's actions by the CSPD were a first step toward public disclosure of internal affairs, but we've still got a way to go.
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