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Friday, March 20, 2009

Publicizing Police Complaints

Appeared in the Beacon News on March 15, 2009 

When I was a patrol officer, a citizen filed a formal complaint against me, claiming that while arresting her, I picked her up and threw her against the transport van. I remember receiving the official notification of the allegation and feeling the blood drain from my face when I read that an investigation was being launched and that a guilty finding may result in my termination.

Not only was I not guilty of the infraction, but, ironically, I'm so much smaller than the person who filed the complaint that it would have made it nearly impossible for me to lift her, let alone throw her, as she claimed. One of the sergeants for whom I worked even gave me the humorous nickname "Crusher" based on the sheer irony of my predicament. Eventually, justice prevailed and the complaint was ruled "unfounded" after several of the citizen's own family members gave statements that exonerated me. Despite being found not guilty, that allegation sits in my personnel file to this day.

There are many innocent officers who have had multiple complaints of varying allegations filed against them resulting in a "not guilty" finding. For this reason, I vehemently support Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis' refusal to submit the list of officers who have complaints lodged against them by the public. Although, facing a contempt of court charge, he later turned over the list, I share his position that complaints that are "unfounded" and officers who are "exonerated" should not be branded as "repeaters."

I have been following Weis' story along with the published comments in response to his refusal. The common feeling amongst the bloggers is that Weis' actions are another example of police corruption and "cover-up." "It's about time (police) be exposed, branded, and made to pay for their egregious behavior," one person posted anonymously.

I can't speak for the Chicago Police Department, but I can speak for Aurora police when I say that every citizen complaint is heard by supervisors and investigated for validity. The complaints are taken very seriously, with accountability being the force that drives the process that protects the public from "cover-up" and corruption.

When I became a sergeant, I was surprised at the number of citizens who filed complaints against officers. I was even more surprised when I began to learn that a number of allegations were fabricated. When our squad cars were outfitted with video cameras and microphones, many accusations were dispelled after viewing the incident and finding no validity to the complaint.

Self-preservation drives human beings who break the law, and it is not unusual for them to accuse an officer of misconduct for their own self-interest. For example, a law-abiding citizen probably has never felt as though they were being harassed by the police. In contrast, criminals who are routinely (and repeatedly) arrested notoriously complain about police harassment.

The common citizen sees this so-called harassment as good police work, where the criminal may see it as an impediment to their lifetime of criminal activity. When the latter occurs, it is not uncommon for them to file a complaint.

Regrettably, a very small percentage of police officers are in this profession unfaithfully. It is the officers who have repeated complaints filed against them with "sustained" (guilty) findings who should be on the "list" of repeaters.

Those officers who abuse their power do substantial damage to our noble profession and should be held accountable to their department and the public.

The vast majority of police officers are doing their jobs and risking their lives every day. Vigilant police work and unyielding pressure on criminals may result in a higher volume of complaints.

If the officers follow the law and departmental procedures, they should have the support of the public and their department to keep their names off of a list that could be damaging to their careers.

If you have any topics or questions that you would like Aurora police Lt. Kristen Ziman to address, e-mail them to Kristen Ziman@gmail.com.