Written by attorney Carina Castaneda

Filing A Complaint Of Police Misconduct

While many law enforcement officers in this country conduct their official duties in a respectful manner for their communities and in compliance with the law. Some do not and as a result, I will briefly outline the laws and departmental procedures in filing a complaint if you believe your rights have been violated.


Federal laws that address police misconduct include both criminal and civil statutes. These laws cover the actions of state, county, and local officers, including those officers who work in prisons and jails. The law also protects both citizens and non-citizens in the United States.

In the criminal case involving investigation of a police the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ"), either federal or state, are handled separately from civil cases, even if arising out of the same incident. DOJ will seek to punish the officer for misconduct through imprisonment or other sanction. In civil case, DOJ brings the case against the law enforcement agency. The victim may also bring a private lawsuit against the police agency and/or the individual officer(s) involved.

The guiding law for individual victims being able to obtain a court order to end misconduct and changes in the agency’s policies and procedures are dictated in U.S.C. Section 14141. The types of actions covered by this law are included, but not limited to, excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests, coercive sexual conduct, and Fourth Amendment violations, like unlawful stops or illegal searches or seizures and arrests. The DOJ must show in court that the agency has unlawful policy or misconduct constituted a “pattern or practice."

In addition to changing agency practices, many of my clients are also interested in seeking individual remedial relief. Again, you can sue the agency and/or the officers in a civil action. In Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Office of Justice Programs (“OJP") statutes, the misconduct covered includes, for example, harassment or use of racial slurs, unjustified arrests, discriminatory traffic stops, coercive sexual conduct, use of excessive force, or refusal by the police agency to respond to complaints alleging discriminatory treatment by its officers.


First and foremost, filing either a criminal or a civil or both complaint of police misconduct is a very complex matter. Be advised, that you as the victim, will be interviewed in detail of the specifics of your claim. It is extremely important that you understand you have a right to representation of an attorney at all contacts including, but not limited to, telephonic and in-person meetings.

A. Filing a complaint with DOJ: If you believe the police misconduct is a violation of your constitutional rights or have discriminatory basis or both, you may contact the FBI, which is responsible for the criminal aspect of your claim. The United States Attorney’s Office in your state is also another avenue since they pursue both criminal and civil actions. If you believe you are a victim of a criminal misconduct of Federal law enforcement agencies like the INS, Customs Service or Border Patrol, you may file a complaint with the U.S. DOJ.

The complaint should include your personal information (name, address and contact numbers); the law enforcement agency involved; a description of what occurred. Be detailed of the dates and times; officers involved—if you have it include their badge number; your injuries, if any; witnesses who can support your allegation. Again, since this document will be closely examined, it may be to your best interest to have an attorney draft it on your behalf so the attorney will be able to foresee your claims and its defenses.

B. California Procedures: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego

San Francisco: If you believe that inappropriate or illegal actions were taken against you by a police officer, request to speak to a supervisor at any police station. If you do not wish to make the complaint in person, obtain a complaint form from the district police station, agency website or the Office of Citizen Complaints (“OCC").

Complaints are investigated by the OCC which is an independent civilian department. OCC will investigate and forward the complaint to SFPD Management Control Division Lieutenant then to the Captain of the Risk Management Office. If the complaint is still held valid, the Chief of Police makes a determination to have a Chief’s hearing or file charges with the Police Commission. As you can read between the lines, there is a great deal of bureaucracy and loopholes that you need to be aware of. As a result, hiring an attorney to overcome the governmental obstacle is recommended.

Los Angeles: Like in San Francisco, if inappropriate acts against you were taken, you may request to speak to a supervisor at any police station, Internal Affairs Group, or the Police Commission. However, I highly recommend a written complaint to establish a paper trail. You can obtain the forms on the agency’s website.

Once a complaint is started, it is forwarded to the Internal Affairs group who will acknowledge receipt of the complaint. They also forward the complaint to the Office of the Inspector General (“OIG"). You can also file a complaint directly with OIG. An investigator will be assigned to your case and will contact you to conduct an interview and will also interview the officers and witnesses, if any. The investigators are allowed up to 1 year to complete the investigation. Once the investigation is finalized, a recommendation is reviewed by the Chief of Police. At the end of the process, you will receive a written analysis of their findings. Again, read between the lines and realize that your rights need to be protected and hiring an attorney who has experience in dealing with the police and its procedure is strongly recommended.

San Diego: Complaints are defined as either category 1 or 11. Category 1 complaints is reviewed by the Internal Affairs Unit then is forwarded to a 3 person panel of the Citizen’s Review Board (“CRB") for further review. CRB then makes a recommendation to the Chief of Police. Decisions are alleged to be completed in 120 days max. Complaint 11 is reviewed by an investigator from the Internal Affairs Unit and stops at this point. It is not forward to CRB. Complaints are generally alleged to be completed in 60 days.

As I have stated to clients, hiring an attorney to guide you through the maze of government requirements of each agency and jurisdiction is daunting. In order to secure that your claims are protected, for either civil, criminal or both, your rights must be protected. Doing it without an attorney will be frustrating and not advisable.

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