Minor misconduct: has minimal adverse impact on the operation or integrity of the agency.  Not likely to result in formal disciplinary action (e.g., a lack of courtesy; although rudeness complaints may have a long-term effect on the officer, as described below, rudeness may also fall into the more serious "unnecessary force" category, also described below).
General misconduct: violates a policy that requires a fixed penalty (e.g., failure to attend court, failure to attend a scheduled training or qualification, etc.).  Generally not relevant to citizen complaints.
Serious misconduct: violates policies, procedures, rules, or regulations that have an adverse impact on the operation or integrity of the agency, and which can result in formal disciplinary action (this includes violations of the law).  Generally the kind of stuff that you want to allege, if at all possible.
Examples of serious misconduct include (names and definitions may vary a bit from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; check your local police agency's Operations Manual (it should be made available to the public online, or at the police agency office):

  • Aiding another (officer) to violate a rule
  • Altering information on official documents
  • Appropriating property
  • Careless driving resulting in injury or death (note also that many jurisdictions require automatic testing of an officer for alcohol or drug influence after any car accident more severe than a fender bender that may have been caused by that officer; this can be a good thing to request under an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)Compromising a criminal case
  • Departing from the truth (a colorful euphemism for lying; good for alleging in the case of traffic tickets; see also False report)
  • Destruction of reports or records
  • Discrimination (see also Racial or ethnic intimidation, below)
  • Drinking on duty
  • False arrest (not to be confused with the tort of the same name)
  • False report (see also Departing from the truth)
  • Harassment (see also Sexual Harassment)
  • Knowingly making a false report (good for alleging in the case of traffic tickets)
  • Law violation(s), or conspiracy to commit law violation(s) (a.k.a. lack of conformance with the law)
  • Malicious threats or assault
  • Narcotics
  • Overdriving (driving rapidly and/or aggressively) on the way to a minor call (very common in some jurisdictions)
  • Racial or ethnic intimidation
  • Rough and careless handling of departmental equipment
  • Sexual harassment
  • Soliciting or accepting a bribe
  • Unnecessary force (a.k.a. excessive force; this category includes not only unnecessary force or violence in making an arrest or in dealing with a prisoner, but also ridiculing, taunting, humiliating, or mentally abusing you)

Filing the Complaint

As mentioned previously, make sure your complaint alleges at least one specific category of misconduct!  (See examples above.)  This serves two purposes.  First, this makes it irrefutably clear what misconduct you are accusing the officer of, and thus helps to set the stage for your complaint to be appropriately reviewed and investigated.  Secondly, and even more importantly, a specific allegation makes it tougher for the departmental employees handling the complaint to clear the officer without any substantial refutation of your allegations, and thus tougher for them to sweep it under the rug.  It's easier for an agency to dismiss a raw statement of facts which contains some misconduct buried deep within, than to dismiss a report which specifically names one or more official categories of misconduct.  As such, try to pick the best few applicable policy violations and list them in a boldface heading at the top of your complaint.  In addition to the serious offenses listed above, other categories of misconduct include:

  • Abuse of authority
  • Abuse of process
  • Conduct unbecoming a law enforcement officer
  • Lack of courtesy
  • Lack of professionalism
  • Neglect of duty

Retaliation (e.g., for a previous complaint you filed!) There is clearly a lot of overlap between categories, so you should be able to cite plenty of types of misconduct in your report.  Don't limit yourself to the items listed here; check your local police department operational manual or procedural handbook for additional categories!

Remember, if the incident about which you are complaining is part of a pattern of behavior by the subject officer(s), be sure to note this in your complaint!

Finally, make sure that you mail the complaint report using Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested.  That way, you'll end up with a postcard that says who at the department signed for your complaint, and the department cannot later allege that they never received it.


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Are written by you!  Do not let another police officer write a complaint for you based on your verbal testimony.  You must control the specific content of the complaint, or you've probably already failed in your efforts.  If you're asked to give your complaint orally to the on-duty supervisor, insist instead on sending a written complaint (certified, with return receipt requested) to Internal Affairs or other disciplinary authority.  Remember that a written submission is much harder for an agency to minimize or bury!

Allege serious misconduct by the officer (see some of the possible applicable categories below; be aggressive about asserting the seriousness of the officer's behavior in your complaint!), and contain an explicit request for a formal investigation.  Wrap up your complaint with a sentence like: "Officer X has committed numerous, serious violations of departmental policy and the law, and for this reason, and for the safety of the community at large, complainant requests a formal investigation be undertaken immediately."

Are timely.  Many jurisdictions require that you file your complaint within 60 days for allegations of minor misconduct (e.g., officer was rude), or within 6 months for more serious allegations.  If you can't meet these deadlines, you should be able to show good cause as to why your complaint was late.  (Note that these deadlines are often waived for allegations of violation of the law.)

Clearly allege a pattern of misconduct, if such a pattern exists.  This makes it less likely the alleged misconduct will be dismissed as "minor."

Have corroborating witnesses whose reports do not conflict with yours!  If witnesses exist, you should ask each of them to write a separate account of the incident.  It will also help if your witnesses are willing to answer additional follow-up questions the police agency might have.
If your complaint cites evidence, the evidence should be produced when the police agency requests it (but make sure you get a receipt!)  Referring to evidence without ever turning it over makes a case look weak, and is a red flag for the complaint to be disregarded.

Are carbon copied ("cc'd") to a state representative or other local politician.  This really turns up the heat and makes it harder for the law enforcement agency to bury the complaint without giving it due consideration!