Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Office of Citizen Complaints
The Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) was approved by voters in November 1982 to investigate complaints against San Francisco police officers. It is staffed by civilians who have never been police officers in San Francisco and had a budget of nearly $2 million in fiscal year 1996-97. Under new mandates, the OCC must have one full-time investigator for every 150 sworn officers, leading to an increase in staffing that is helping to deal with the OCC's case backlog.41 Both the OCC and the police department are under the authority of the civilian Police Commission (with the police chief also reporting to the mayor). After a period of rapid turnover, the OCC has a new executive director, Mary Dunlap, who has a civil rights background and respect from local activists on police abuse issues. She is credited with improving the performance of the OCC and restoring its credibility.
Under its charter, the OCC must investigate every complaint it receives except for those that are clearly baseless. Officers are required to cooperate with the OCC, which has access to all police files, investigates complaints on its own, recommends disciplinary sanctions, makes policy recommendations and publishes quarterly reports. The public also has access to an "openness" report available from the OCC if any person requests the file on a specific investigation, but it is usually a brief one-page summary of the investigation and conclusions.42
On average, the OCC receives 1,000 to 1,200 complaints each year by phone, mail, and from complainants who visit its office; it accepts anonymous complaints. If the police department receives a complaint from the public, it refers it to the OCC; the Internal Affairs Division handles internally generated complaints only.43 About 12 to 15 percent of the complaints filed each year involve allegations of unnecessaryforce.44 In 1996, African-Americans made up 26 percent of the OCC's complainants - the OCC notes that this percentage "is higher than the percentage of African-Americans in the city's population," which in the 1990 census was just under 11 percent.45 The OCC generally sustained approximately 6 to 7 percent of the cases closed each year.46
OCC conducts its own investigations.47 Investigative hearings are held after an OCC investigation if either the complainant or officer is dissatisfied and if the hearing is approved by the OCC to facilitate fact-finding. Hearings are as nonadversarial as possible, and hearing officers are not drawn from the OCC. Cases sustained by the OCC are sent to the police chief with recommendations for disciplinary or other action if the OCC recommends less than a ten-day suspension. For any longer period of suspension or termination, cases are sent to the Police Commission for a hearing.
Until recently, the chief had the option of ignoring the OCC's recommendation, and did so in the past. In 1994, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California reviewed cases and found that, in more than 80 percent of sustained complaint findings, no discipline was imposed at all, even for very serious violations. The OCC has been criticized for failing to challenge the police chiefs when they have lessened, or lifted, OCC's recommended penalties. The procedures were changed, and now the OCC may take any case to the Police Commission for an ultimate decision if the chief declines to take disciplinary action.
The OCC maintains its own database to track complaints and other information about investigations. The department's Management Control Division (MCD) has its own database dealing with deaths in custody. According to OCC, the two offices have access to each other's tracking data. Every six months, supervisors have toupdate a "multiple card" for officers, tracking complaints and other information to identify officers who may need discipline, training, or counseling. There is an early warning system, adopted in April 1995 and administered by OCC. The OCC reports on a quarterly basis a list of officers who have received three or more complaints within a six-month period or four or more complaints within a year. The complaint histories are also used for general performance evaluations. Mediation is now part of the process, so if an officer agrees to mediation and the complaint is mediated successfully, nothing appears on his or her personnel record. OCC retains its findings for a minimum of five years.48
The OCC has a unique procedure for responding to civil lawsuits alleging police abuse that falls within its mandate.49 Whenever the office receives a copy of a civil claim form from the City Attorney's office, it sends the complainant information about the OCC and a complaint form, to allow the plaintiff to file an OCC complaint if he or she is so inclined. Civil attorneys frequently advise clients not to file a complaint with the OCC, because the client's statement could be used against him or her in the civil lawsuit. But OCC explains that a timely investigation is crucial, and if they do not investigate until a civil suit is settled, the investigation suffers. The OCC contends that its investigation will be of high quality and that civil attorneys could benefit from using the information uncovered (or they could save time by dropping an unwinnable case).
There is no procedure for the OCC to notify the district attorney's office if a case may be prosecutable; the victim or another involved party must report directly to the district attorney's office. There is no link between the OCC and federal prosecutors, with the OCC relying on civil lawyers to provide information to federal authorities.
41 As of late 1997 there were sixteen investigators, as part of a staff of twenty-five.
42 Telephone interview, John Crew, ACLU of Northern California, February 12, 1998.
43 In 1988, the Police Commission adopted resolution 1159-88 which prohibits police from threatening, intimidating, misleading or harassing potential or actual OCC complainants, witnesses or staff members.
44 In 1995 and 1996, other complaint categories were "unwarranted action" which made up 38 to 39 percent of complaints, neglect of duty complaints made up approximately 23 percent, "conduct reflecting discredit" on the department made up 15 to 18 percent, with the remaining complaints concerning discourtesy and sexual or racial slurs.
45 Office of Citizen Complaints, 1996 Annual Report, p. 13.
47 During 1996 when the OCC hired eight new investigators, four were women and four men, and included an African-American, one Latina- American, one Latino-American, one Chinese-American, and one Siberian-American, thus adding to language expertise and cultural breadth at the OCC.
48 According to press reports, twenty-five files of fully investigated or closed cases were lost in 1994; eighteen files were similarly lost in 1990. Thaai Walker, "Files missing at police watchdog agency in S.F.," San Francisco Chronicle, August 18, 1994.
49 This change was implemented after the Wohler case, see above.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch