We see the side of a person, a police radio and handcuffs lopped onto a belt. They are wearing a blue shirt and blue pants. Image used via CC0.

Complaint Process
In recent years, many initiatives have worked to systematically track and analyze data on police complaints in jurisdictions such as Chicago. However, obtaining accurate data on police is notoriously difficult, because the primary mechanism for oversight is often “internal affairs” – the police themselves.  In other words, if someone wanted to voice their grievance they are often required to make the complaint to the very organization that harmed them – an obvious conflict of interest.

When complaints are made, very few are “sustained” or deemed valid by colleagues of the police officer. Social scientists have found that between 2% – 28% of complaints are actually sustained, which might well be an overestimate. Moreover, complaints by Black citizens are even less likely to be sustained.

Bad Apples?

Is the solution as simple as removing “bad apples” with numerous police complaints from the police force? As is common when society faces a difficult problem, we tend to gravitate towards easy solutions – such as scapegoating. Research suggests that a small portion of officers (4% – 12%) were responsible for a relatively large share (20% – 41%) of filed complaints. Yet the majority of complaints are spread throughout the department. In other words, there are not just a few bad apples spoiling the bunch – but the tree itself may be bearing rotten fruit

Systemic Change

In recent decades, police departments have adopted initiatives, such as civilian review boards, which foster greater inclusion of the community into addressing complaints. However, these initiatives have mixed results and have been criticized for their exclusion of racially marginalized community members.

Beyond civilian review boards, cities such as Baltimore, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and Denver have taken action to hold spaces for direct, face-to-face dialogue between complainants and police. Both traditional and restorative justice models of mediation have led to greater satisfaction, in-tune with the spirit of “community-policing” and fostering healing. 

As is the case with controlling crime more generally, this research shows that the problem is not as simple as identifying and tossing out a few bad apples – and that police, policy makers, and the community must look to system-level change rather than placing the entirety of blame on individual scapegoats.