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ACLU: D.C. police provide insufficient information, fail complaint protocol

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D.C. police officers are not giving the proper information to people who ask about filing complaints against officers, the American Civil Liberties Union concluded after performing spot checks at city police stations.

"Undercover investigators" from the ACLU of the Nation's Capital went to 10 D.C. police stations and substations in December to determine how officers would respond to requests for information on how to file a police compliant, said John Albanes, a fellow with the ACLU.

Among the findings, officers at six of the 10 police stations failed to mention the Office of Police Complaints as a means to file a complaint. Citizens can make official complaints about police misconduct through either the department's Internal Affairs Division or by contacting the Office of Police Complaints, a civilian-led independent oversight board.

At two of the 10 police stations, officers reacted "with hostility" to the inquiries, said Mr. Albanes, who provided testimony about the tests during a D.C. Council oversight hearing Friday on the department.

"One officer at the First District substation threatened that the complainant would have to be interrogated at her home," Mr. Albanes said. "Another officer at the Fifth District station stated that he wouldn't provide any information on how to file a complaint unless our tester first told him what the complaint was about."

The police department's general orders ban officers from discouraging anyone from making a complaint and also specifically outline how to take complaints.

The handling of police complaints was one of many protocols examined by the Department of Justice during its oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department from 2001 until 2008. During Friday's oversight hearing, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier cited the last report issued during that oversight period as giving the department high praise for having documents that outline the complaints process in police stations nearly all the time.

"Maybe the issue is regular audits again for awhile," she said, adding the last such audit was done in 2008.

Chief Lanier promised to look into the issue and noted that if the police department doesn't receive complaints it can't fix problems.

"We require that stuff be done and then we audit to make sure it's there. So I will conduct another internal audit to make sure the compliance measures we have are being upheld," Chief Lanier said.

Mr. Albanes said that during the tests conducted by ACLU staff, posters were often seen in the police stations outlining the complaints process and options for complainants. The problem was officers did not seem aware of the process or provided false information.

"We're talking about six whole years without formal oversight, so things can definitely go awry in that time," he said.

When ACLU staff called police stations by phone to inquire about the complaint process, the type of officer response mirrored the results of the in-person station visits, Mr. Albanes said.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and with oversight of the police department, noted deficiencies in the current process, including slow results from the Office of Police Complaints. He questioned whether the current method is the best way to handle complaints.

"I'm wondering if there should be an overhaul of the Office of Police Complaints," he said.

Mr. Albanes said the ACLU would support efforts to grant the Office of Police Complaints more authority.

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