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Complaints Against the Police: A Focus Group Study of Citizen Perceptions, Goals, and Expectations

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Review Volume: 22 Issue: 2 Dated: Autumn 1997 Pages: 207-226
S Walker
Date Published
20 pages
Data from 10 focus groups representing a cross-section of a midwestern city were used to explore citizen perceptions, goals, and expectations in filing complaints against the police.
The city had a population of about 350,000 in 1990, a police agency with about 650 sworn officers, and 3 smaller agencies with a combined total of 49 officers. The focus groups involved active members of established religious, educational, and social institutions. The focus groups considered a scenario describing a hypothetical incident of police misconduct that was more serious than being hassled and less serious than a physical beating. Participants were asked about their actions in response to the hypothetical incident, their perceptions of the incident and the police, their goals if they were to file a complaint, and their expectations of what might result from filing a complaint. Results confirmed earlier research that indicated a poor fit between complainant goals and complaint procedures. Although most existing complaint procedures are designed to investigate complaints of police officer misconduct and to punish guilty police officers, relatively few of the focus group participants indicated that punishment was their goal. Instead, the majority wanted either an explanation for the incident, an apology, a face-to-face encounter with the police officer, or documentation of the incident on the police officer's record. Findings indicated that neither internal nor external complaint procedures have adequately taken complainants' goal into account and that they need to accommodate complainant desires if they are to enhance complainant satisfaction. Findings also indicated important variations in different subgroups' perceptions of the police and the complaint process and suggested the need for further research on these variations. 51 references (Author abstract modified)