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10 Ways to Minimize Complaints

Countless times I have dealt with citizens who came to my office with complaints regarding the conduct of law enforcers in my agency. While many of them turned out to be unfounded after an investigatory look, a few citizen initiated objections are grounded in misunderstanding and even some truth.

Giving the angry person a chance to vent certainly helps to alleviate the issue. I have felt good about that. I have also gained some satisfaction from helping to clarify the officer’s actions that were misinterpreted and lead to the resentment being displayed at my police services building office.

I found an even greater satisfaction in coaching officers to conduct their duties in a manner that offended the fewest and still resulted in an accomplishment of their police mission. In the vein of modern policing concepts, it is better for you to be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to the creation of complaints on your conduct.

You can be respectful of a person even when you are taking them to jail. Many of the people I took to jail shook my hand at booking and thanked me for treating them “like a person.”

Here are ten tips that you can use to minimize, and hopefully avoid altogether, the generation of complaints.

1. Don’t use profanity. Trying to be cool and speak the street language of your suspect does not serve a purpose. They see you as trying to be something you’re not. It also doesn’t look so professional when replayed from your in-car video camera’s audio track in court.

2. Double-lock your handcuffs. The majority of use-of-force complaints are generated from handcuffs that became too tight on a transported arrestee’s wrists. Double-lock those cuffs right away. Be sure to document that step in your report’s narrative. I did so and I believe the double-lock documentation effectively stopped a “Notice of Intent” to sue that was lodged against me for wrist injuries on a suspect I arrested.

3. Be polite. Get used to saying “yes sir” and “no sir,” as well as “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am.” This is especially true when you are involved in a use of force incident. You could even hold the door for people. The nastier people get, the more polite you should get. Kill them with kindness. I did so. My reasoning was that as they became more difficult, I became even more polite so as to not give them a leg to stand up on against me. Being polite shows the public and co-workers respect. It’s not hard to do, doesn’t cost the agency a lot of money, and you can’t go wrong using your good manners. Even my four-year-old son has learned to be polite to that level.

4. Explain. When you stop a car or person that matches the description of a BOLO and it turns out not to be the sought after subject, explain what happened in a respectful manner. Don’t just end the encounter by cutting the person loose with no explanation. I have had people say that if it were only explained to them, they would not have been so upset. In some cases, it may even mean offering an apology.

5. No cowboy driving. Unless you have your emergency equipment activated, do not blow through red lights and stop signs. We’ve all heard the public’s groaning that “the cop is going to get his pizza before it get cold.” If you get a priority call and it gets cancelled right after going through the red light, quickly turn off the road and get out of sight of other motorists before you shut down your lights and siren. That should help avoid a negative perception. Avoid driving too fast and tailgating cars. The public does notice you in a patrol unit with a clearly marked identification number emblazoned on all sides.

6. Subtle officer safety. Within reason, don’t be so heavy-handed with your officer safety. Many times, you may be able to reach the same objective without antagonizing the person. For example, if I wanted to check a chair for weapons prior to letting someone sit down, I’d pick up the pillow and tell them I was fluffing it up for them as their tax dollars pay for me to make sure that they are comfortable. It achieved the goal while not provoking them to come back later with “The cop made me feel like a criminal.”

7. Return calls from citizens. If someone calls the dispatch center or station for you, be sure to return their call promptly. Often people told me that they were not upset so much with the news that was conveyed by the officer, but rather with the delay.

8. Give your name. When ending a call, be sure that the person knows your name. Better yet, give them your business card with the case number on it. If your agency only has generic cards, grab a bunch of these and put your name on them using a rubber stamp. When I was patrol, I used to give out my business card with the handwritten case number on it and even noted that action in my report narrative. Complaining people have told me that they felt that the officer was trying to cover something up since they didn’t offer, or wouldn’t answer with, their name. The lack of an officer’s name lead to a negative perception.

9. Show up for all legal proceedings. If you are subpoenaed for a criminal or administrative proceeding, be sure to show up before the start time. Many complaints are generated against officers who miss or are late for DMV driver’s license revocation hearings or other legal matters.

10. Maintain a professional appearance. Your motivation to self-inspect should not end the last day of the police academy. Take a good hard look at yourself before you report to work. Make sure that your personal hygiene and uniform is in order. If you need to start up an exercise program, do so. While appearance does not tend to be a primary complaint, it often comes up after the person lodges the initial concern.

Generally speaking, I have tried to live my personal message as inscribed on the back of my law enforcement trading cards (otherwise known as copcards) and encourage you do likewise: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” I think that says it all.

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