Is the police complaints process a waste of time?

Over the years I have read hundreds of complaint findings, forwarded to me by disillusioned members of the public who have made complaints to the police, and I have yet to see a single one that doesn’t resort to form. In my experience, the vast majority of these reports, authored by the police, apply a template approach, the aim of which is to discredit and disregard the complainant at all costs, whilst defending and excusing the police officer at every opportunity – even in the face of insurmountable proof of misconduct.

Let me describe for you how a typical complaint investigation report reads:

Firstly, the complaint is reworded so it becomes what the police want you to be complaining about, rather than what you really are complaining about. All important issues of police misconduct will either be diffused or completely ignored. All side issues will be amplified so the investigating officer has something to fill the report pages with.

Next, the report will contain a complete retelling of the incident as imagined by the officer concerned, that barely approaches the truth. To describe your part in the event, the police will use words like ‘uncooperative’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘obstructive’. To describe the officer’s part in the event, words like ‘professional’, ‘respectful’ and ‘helpful’ will be used.

After all the muck has been raked and the mud flung, the validity of your complaint will then be assessed. By that, I mean any allegation left over that the police officer didn’t deny. Which will be pretty much nothing.

Investigator’s decision? Complaint not upheld.

Finally, in summing up, and with the strategic use of innuendo, you will be dismissed as a vindictive liar, attempting to bring a malicious complaint against a faultless, upstanding member of the police service for no other reason except petty revenge. In the unlikely event that any part of your complaint is upheld, it will always be for a minor issue you more than likely never even mentioned; the penalty for which, no matter how egregiously the officer behaved, will consist of a quiet word in his ear or a bit of management training.

Yes, ‘lessons have been learned’. And then just as quickly forgotten.

The overall aim of these reports is to reach the same conclusion over and over again…

A police officer is never wrong.

Even in the unlikely event he is proved to be in the wrong, it will be dismissed as being all your fault.

The reason for this is that the police complaints process refuses to entertain the notion, even for a second, that some police officers can act purely out of spite; let alone that some of their actions are downright criminal. The mandate of the complaints investigator is to apply the golden rule of police misconduct: When a police officer breaks the law it’s merely the result of a ‘misunderstanding’, a ‘mistake’ or a ‘lapse in judgement’. When the rest of us break the law it’s due to outright criminality, nothing else

How to get ‘value’ out of the police complaints process
So, if the police complaints process is such a futile, waste of time, why do I still encourage people to use it?

Well, in most instances, it is the only avenue of redress available. Surprisingly, most people that do complain want very little action taken and are quite happy to be fobbed off with a swift phone call from a matey sergeant who promises to ‘have a word’ with the officer complained about. Lip service and platitudes are usually all it takes to satisfy most complainants.

However, if you have a good understanding of the law, police policies and procedures it is possible to construct a complaint that the police cannot wriggle out of and nails the offending officer almost every time.

When making a complaint, you should stick specifically to the issues you know for certain amount to a breach of conduct. Avoid making your complaint in highly emotive (or judgemental) language as this will either be ignored or used as a reason to reject your complaint in it’s entirety, labelling you as a ‘vexatious complainant’.

Above all else, NEVER allow the police to resolve your complaint with an informal chat on the phone, or a friendly visit. Not only will nothing be done in respect of the offending officer, these methods are used specifically to avoid the complaint ever showing up on his or her service record and to dodge the formal complaint process entirely.

The police complaints process as evidence
The best advice I can offer anyone who has fallen victim to police abuse of authority, is never use the complaints route when you can bring a legal action instead. It is the most effective resolution process that exists. And unlike police complaints and appeals this route is genuinely independent and cannot be scuppered by the interference of other police officers. Best of all, you may be able to obtain financial compensation rather than empty promises of a hollow reprimand.

In some instances, the police complaint report itself can be crucial to bringing such a successful civil claim, especially when the report is awash with misinformation, lies and excuses.


Because this dishonest version of events the police have constructed in their bid to clear a fellow officer of all wrongdoing now becomes the substance of their defence. They cannot just deny the report exists when legal action is threatened, scrap it and have their solicitors construct a fresh defence for the court. The initial report can be entered as evidence, and there will be nothing the police can do to distance themselves from it. With this in mind the police can be very reticent about going to court with such an embarrassing document to defend their actions, which gives them an even greater incentive to settle out of court.

So, is the police complaints process a waste of time? Well the answer is yes and no. Yes, if you are unfamiliar with the process and the only people you have to assure you of it’s worth, and guide you through it, are police officers. On the other hand, by composing a carefully crafted complaint, and giving the police just enough rope to hang themselves with, it can be an essential first step in bringing a successful civil action against the police.