HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

Police Administration/
Internal Affairs

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According to Sgt. Robert Bennett, the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) has three investigators to handle complaints against the 435-member force.27 Bennett estimates that the IAB receives about fifty to sixty complaints each year alleging verbal or physical abuse by police officers.28 IAB complaint forms are only in English, with the department considering translation into Spanish. The department conducts no outreach advising residents about how to file a complaint. According to the IAB, the police department is the primary recipient of complaints, not the Human Relations Commission. When asked about reports of dissuasion efforts by officers receiving complaints about fellow officers, Bennett stated that officers might "get into dialogue" when asked for complaint forms.29 According to IAB, thecomplaint forms exist because of a 1973 court order requiring they be made available. (The complaint form provided to Human Rights Watch during our 1995 visit was precisely the same as the form required by the 1973 consent decree.) The IAB has not published any public reports, but was working on its first annual report in January 1997: it was unclear whether it would be made public.30

The IAB uses a photo book of black and white photos to help complainants identify accused officers. Once the officer is identified, he or she is notified of the complaint and is required to respond to the allegations. The IAB representative noted that in fifteen years at IAB, he has never heard an officer admit guilt. He was unable to provide the sustained rate for excessive force complaints, but estimated that no more than 5 percent of those accused who made it to the hearing process were actually subjected to disciplinary measures. The chief has discretion to impose suspensions up to two days, but more serious disciplinary actions must be approved during a bill of rights hearing with a police union representative, department representative, and a "neutral party" (another police officer). According to the IAB representative, officers usually prevail in bill of rights hearings, meaning that serious discipline is rarely applied.

IAB claims that complaint investigation files are only maintained until hearings are completed, and explains that the ACLU and DARE will have to settle for hearing officers' summations. Unsubstantiated complaints are reportedly kept in officer's file for two years, then discarded. IAB states that it notifies a complainant of the closure of his or her case by certified mail.

If an investigation has not already been conducted, the IAB does initiate an investigation when the City Solicitor's office notifies it an officer has been named in a lawsuit.31 IAB sometimes works with the FBI when the FBI directly receives complaints involving the Providence police force, but IAB does not pass complaints that could be prosecutable under federal criminal civil rights statutes to the FBI.32 However, IAB and the police department are not necessarily made aware of criminal charges filed in surrounding communities against Providence police officers. For example, Officer James J. Rodger was indicted on seven counts of assault with a dangerous weapon for pointing his loaded pistol at a group of teenagers. He was arrested by Pawtucket police for the February 1992 off-duty incident, and filed fordisability five days later.33 According to reports, several other police officers had been granted disability pensions while facing criminal charges, even though, according to the city solicitor, officers suspended without pay should not be eligible for benefits.34

During a ride-along with a Providence police sergeant, he told Human Rights Watch that some complaints against officers are well founded, but most are not.35 The sergeant stated that lawyers file false claims against officers, that most complaints are false, and officers are punished wrongly. He then described a really good officer who is now serving a five-year sentence and said he should not have been punished. The sergeant was apparently referring to an officer, Michael J. Newman, who was convicted in 1991 on federal criminal civil rights charges for beating a prisoner who was handcuffed to the bars of his cell.36 The sergeant repeatedly mentioned that officers only fear a federal inquiry, not investigations by IAB.

27 Interview with Sgt. Robert Bennett, August 3, 1995 and telephone interview with Sergeant Bennett, January 27, 1997.

28 According to press reports, the IAB reported thirty-five complaints were filed against the police, alleging brutality or other misconduct, during 1995.

29 Telephone interview with Sergeant Bennett, January 27, 1997.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 The IAB representative was aware of one federal civil rights prosecution involving a police officer.

33 Thomas Frank, "Patrolman facing charges gets pension," Providence Journal-Bulletin, October 15, 1992.

34 Ibid.

35 Ride-along, August 4, 1995.

36 "Officer's sentence attacked by union," Boston Globe, December 8, 1991.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch