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Citizen Police Complaints

August 01, 1993

Your article of July 4 about the Long Beach Citizens Police Complaint Commission was generally fair and accurately illustrated some of the difficulties of operating effective civilian review on a minuscule budget. But your statement that the commission "almost always sides with the police officer" is misleading.

The fact that the commission places a comparatively low proportion of complaints in the "sustained" category does not mean that the commission almost always sides with the police. The commission's single most common verdict is "inconclusive," meaning that there is insufficient evidence to side with either party. This, while unsatisfying, is an unavoidable fact of life in reviewing complaints against police. For example:

* An arrestee complains that he was handcuffed too tightly. The officer states that the cuffs were applied appropriately. There is no medical evidence and no witness.

* A complainant alleges that officers on gang detail used profanity or racial slurs toward him. The officers deny it. No one else was within earshot.

* A gay male complains that he was falsely arrested, by an undercover vice officer, for lewd conduct in a public restroom. No one else was present in the restroom.

* A suspect complains that he was searched without consent or probable cause. The officer states that the man orally consented to the search.

* A homeless person complains that he had a wad of bank notes in his pocket when he was taken into custody for public drunkenness, but that it was not returned to him when he was released. The officers involved deny ever seeing any money in the complainant's possession. There are no other witnesses.

In such cases, which are typical of the complaints which the commission repeatedly sees, it is, in fairness, generally impossible to find a complaint "sustained" with the requisite degree of certainty to justify imposition of discipline on an officer. That such complaints usually result in an "inconclusive" finding is not evidence that the commission is biased in favor of the police.

The commission does keep records of all complaints, whether sustained or not, and notifies the chief of police and city manager of the names of officers who appear to be attracting an untoward number of complaints, particularly if those complaints involve the same types of alleged conduct.

It is a mistake to judge the quality of a civilian review commission by the number of complaints it sustains. The commission cannot guarantee that any particular percentage of complaints will be sustained. But it can, and does, guarantee to make sure that every citizen complaint against the Long Beach Police Department will be thoroughly investigated and impartially adjudicated.

MICHAEL J. PEARCE

Chairman, Long Beach Citizen Police Complaint Commission

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