The Complaint

I’ve heard it my entire career, and I’m guessing you have too.  As an FTO, I occasionally said it to trainees (unwisely) to reassure them.  It has made me feel justified {even exonerated}at times when I’ve heard supervisors say it.  And just as sure as every Thai restaurant in America plays Miles Davis music as you dine – we’ll keep saying it, and worse yet accepting it, if we don’t revisit our muddled thinking.

It goes something like this: “I don’t believe officers are being productive if they don’t occasionally have a complaint filed against them.”

Haven’t we been conditioned to accept this notion as pure fact?

It sure “sounds” right.  The formula, which has gone unchallenged, seems to go like this: Busy, productive officer – equals more contact with the public than the “average” officer – equals more complaints.

So, there you have it.  And if you don’t believe me, let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario we can all relate to.  You walk into work and pass the Sheriff in the hallway.  He asks you to step into his office and shut the door.  Naturally, you step in and have a seat.  As he takes his seat behind his desk, you glance at the framed picture on the wall of him and his fourth wife on vacation in Cancun last year.  They’re seated at a restaurant table with an unidentified couple, around the same age, who both look like they’ve been through a few marriages themselves.  The waiter has managed to snap a lovely picture of the four of them (they’re not from the selfie generation) as they beam ear to ear waiting for their first bottle of Merlot to arrive at the table.  The Sheriff gets right down to business – “Listen, Karen (you’re Karen), I’ve been forwarded a complaint involving you and your contact with a driver on a traffic stop a couple of weeks ago.  I haven’t reviewed the entire statement yet, but he says you were impatient and used inappropriate language during the stop.   I will finish reading it and get back to you soon with the outcome.  But Karen, I just wanted to call you in ahead of time and THANK-YOU for getting this complaint. No matter what the outcome of my investigation and regardless of any discipline you might receive, I want you to know that an officer is not doing their job if they don’t sometimes get a complaint filed against them.  Have a safe shift, Karen, and thanks again for the complaint.  Keep them coming, will ya?”  As you stand up to leave, you’re stunned as you get better eyes on that picture.  That other couple is the Mayor and his fifth wife!  She’s an online Mary Kay consultant.

Obviously, that’s a somewhat ridiculous, hypothetical scenario (except the part about the Merlot).   Hopefully, though, it illustrates this flawed school of thought.  The notion that an officer isn’t doing their job if they don’t garner complaints is foolish.

Yet, this concept has become so universally accepted that we adhere to it as gospel.

One perfect example (a real one this time) involves a Los Angeles Sheriff Department’s motor officer.   Recently, a Captain for the deputy’s traffic unit was reviewing the files and past complaints associated with the deputies under his command.  He was surprised to find that one veteran motor officer had no complaints in his file.  At first, he assumed there was just a filing error – because, remember, it’s virtually “impossible” to be a police officer without generating complaints.  However, when the Captain probed further, he discovered there was no mistake.  The veteran deputy had not received a single citizen complaint during his long career – while working in the traffic division, no less.  After over 25,000 enforcement stops (most of them necessitating a citation) not one motorist filed a complaint against the deputy.  Undoubtedly, he’s encountered every race, socio-economic status, religion, occupation, and many who simply aren’t big fans of the Po Po.

Still, not one complaint.  How did he do it?

It’s nothing much more complicated than being a pleasant professional and starting each stop with, “How are you today” rather than a robotic “I need your license and registration.” His style is one of teaching and mentoring violators, rather than taunting or lecturing them – leaving them with the feeling he’s genuinely concerned for their safety.

If we continue to mistakenly encourage officers, especially newer ones, to embrace the mindset they aren’t doing their job if they don’t receive complaints, are we not setting them up for potential failure in many ways?  If the message is that complaints mean an officer is performing at an above average level, might he not actively seek to get complaints?  At the very least, it encourages him to believe that whatever less than civil behavior he rolls with on a daily basis is normal and encouraged.

Without question, we all agree that going home alive and uninjured after a shift is our top priority.  Therefore, is engaging in complaint producing behavior – which, with few exceptions, is normally brought on by something ranging from “cute” to inappropriate coming out of our mouths during a contact, conducive to ensuring we make it home in one piece?  Of course, not.  Please, before you email me and tell me that complaints are sometimes filed against officers for no reason, or are often completely false, I get it!   But the ones that don’t fall into that category – the ones where we’ve done something to be our own worst enemy, need to be avoided at all costs – especially these days!

Granted, the Los Angeles deputy, and his complaint barren personnel file, might be a tough act to follow.  Damn tough, actually.  But, do most of us have room for improvement?   More than likely, yes.  I KNOW I do.   Clearly, we’re just not in an era where complaints are ever a good thing.  They’re the last thing we need during this challenging time for our profession.  While we may never prevent all complaints, there are key things we can do daily to help significantly reduce them.  Here are two reasonable guidelines:

  1. When we disagree with our significant others, especially if we’ve been with that person for a long time, we know EXACTLY the right (or wrong) buttons to push to infuriate them. Conversely, they know which of ours to push to make our blood boil.  We all have at least a little “Don’t go there” in us.

It’s not much different in policing.  Individually, some things get under our skin more than others.  How about violators that remain on their cell phone while you’re trying to obtain their information during a traffic stop?  What about going to the same house, regarding the same domestic issues, 3 times during the same shift, because they won’t leave each other alone?   We all have something that is hard for us to manage without blowing a gasket and saying the things to a contact that will not only get us in trouble, but be a black eye for our department as well.  The difference between work and home is that we can’t reveal our “Don’t go there” side on the job.  A technique that can remedy this dilemma is to practice a few seconds of “self-talk” and deep breathing when responding to a situation which we know, from experience, will likely perturb us when we arrive on scene, and see that rather large lady in the cotton sweatpants and “Hello Kitty” t-shirt waving us down (brace yourself, you’re about to see her teeth).  Whenever possible, get yourself calmed down on the way to the call.

  1.  Don’t copy others.  However, take note of those who communicate well and rarely generate complaints.  In particular, if you’re a newer member of law enforcement, pay attention to these type of officers and their techniques.  The first time you hear the “complaints are just part of the job” rhetoric, don’t automatically internalize it and don’t be afraid to challenge the notion respectfully.     


Now, who’s ready for some jazz and spicy spring rolls?

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Mike Grimes began his law enforcement career many years ago in beautiful Napa Valley, California. He is a veteran police officer, author, and freelance writer, now based in Indiana. His experience includes Field Training Officer, background investigations, academy instructor and evaluator. He is the author of two books – one on budget travel and the other on time management, available on Amazon Kindle. You can reach him at Visit here to view and purchase his books



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