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How Can I Bring a Complaint to a Police Ombudsman or Oversight Body?

A Police Ombudsman is an independent and impartial office that handles complaints about the conduct of police. The Police Ombudsman’s role is to investigate serious complaints made and conduct of staff working for the government’s law enforcement agencies.

Although not all countries have a specific ombudsman that deals uniquely with police complaints, many countries have an independent body to which you can bring complaints about police conduct, even if it is not labelled as an ombudsman. For example, in some countries, there are civilian review boards that monitor police conduct.

Example: National Human Rights and Ombudsman Institution (Uruguay)

Although there is no independent body that oversees the police, complaints should be made to the National Human Rights and Ombudsman Institution.

If your country has a federal government, you may need to check whether your state has a federal ombudsman.

Example: The Federal Police Ombudsman in Brazil

Brazil, with a federal government system has federal ombudsman bodies. The first police ombudsman in Brazil was established in the state of Sao Paulo in 1995, with the purpose to enhance internal controls of the actions of the state police. Under federal law (Legislative Decree No. 150, 2009) the Ombudsman position must occupied by a citizen, who is nominated by civil society, and a set of criteria is used to assess public bodies’ performances.

1

Is a Complaint to a Police Ombudsman Right for Me?

You should also be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of bringing a complaint to a Police Ombudsman before deciding whether this option is right for you:

ADVANTAGESDISADVANTAGES
Lodging a complaint may be the only way in which you can seek to have individual police officers disciplined for their conduct.Sometimes the police will investigate themselves. If the oversight body is not independent, there is a serious risk of bias.
The officers you complain about may be formally interviewed and disciplined. This may result in the officer's dismissal, suspension or make them think about what they have done.Very few complaints result in an officer being formally punished.
Whether your complaint is upheld or not, the process of making a complaint can provide answers to your questions about why there was an arrest. Complaints may take over a year to conclude. If disciplinary proceedings are taken against the officer it can take longer.
Making a complaint makes your concerns official, and a record will be made of those concerns and kept by the police force. These complaints could then be used as evidence in a later court case.When responding to a complaint, the officer involved may make allegations about your own behaviour in order to justify their actions, which can be upsetting.
Your complaint might help other people making complaints against the same officer to show a pattern of abuse or misconduct.Giving evidence in disciplinary proceedings can be an unpleasant experience, as you will be cross - examined by lawyers acting for the officers complained about.
A complaint could lead to policy changes in a police force or further training.It is unlikely you will be awarded compensation.
The process is more informal and you may not need as much evidence to get a resultThe outcomes are not legally binding and could be ignored by the police service.
2

Who Can Bring a Claim?

In general, you can complain if you were directly affected by the police action or inaction, were indirectly affected or are a witness.

  • In other words, you can complain if you were the person who was arrested or witnesses the arrest.

If you do not feel able to complain yourself, with your consent someone else may be able to complain on your behalf.

  • You may be able to make a complaint by contacting a lawyer, political representative or civil society organisation to make the complaint for you.
3

Who Can the Claim Be Brought Against?

Generally, complaints regarding the police can be brought against the relevant law enforcement officer including police and government officials.

Example: Trinidad and Tobago

You can bring a claim against a police officer that you suspect is or has been involved in a criminal offence, police corruption or serious police misconduct.

4

What Should I Include in My Complaint?

To start to investigation or inquiry into police misconduct, you have to submit a complaint with information about the alleged unlawful or arbitrary arrest.

Practical Tips: Making a Complaint

Prepare a document in which you explain your complaint. In this document you should:

  • Describe the arrest and the circumstances surrounding the arrest.
  • Identify the police officer and explain their role.
  • The date, time and place of the arrest.
  • Explain why you were unhappy with what happened.
  • State the reasons why you consider the arrest was unlawful or arbitrary.
  • Outline the evidence that supports your reasons (see below).
  • Explain the consequences of the arrest, and the reasons why it has caused you or other people loss.
  • Explain what remedy or outcome you want.

You should aim to keep your account clear and simple. You should keep to the facts as you believe them to be and not include emotion.

Generally, your complaint should be structured in a chronological way, with the earliest events in time coming first and the most recent events coming last.

You can structure your complaint by looking at the relevant police procedure and law focusing on why you believe it has been broken.

When you have written all of this down, it would be a good idea to ask a lawyer to look at it.


Evidence


In general, you will need to support your complaint with evidence if you want an investigation to be started. For information on what evidence could be useful, see “What Evidence Do I Need to Challenge an Arrest?”.

An advantage of complaints to a police ombudsman or oversight body is that there is usually more flexibility on what types of evidence you can use and how much evidence you need to have. This is because there are not often any legal rules of evidence or a formal standard of proof like there are in court.

However, if you are planning to make a successful complaint, you will still need to gather evidence to show that there are some grounds to suspect that the police officer committed an unlawful or arbitrary arrest.

  • As the complainant, the burden is generally on you to prove your complaint to the ombudsman.
  • In other words, you will need to convince the person or body dealing with the complaint that the unlawful/arbitrary arrest happened or may have happened so they should investigate further.

Practical Tip: Be Strategic with Your Evidence

You should also consider what type of strategy you wish to adopt with your complaint. You may prefer to control the information you present and reduce the need to be interviewed. The more written information you provide, the less need there may be for formal questioning.

5

What Procedural Steps do You Need to Take to Bring a Complaint?

Before considering bringing a complaint to the Police Ombudsman, you should consider whether you would be within the time limit for doing so.

The process for making a complaint to a Police Ombudsman usually follows these steps:

 

Step 1: You may be asked to fill in a form with your contact details and details of the complaint, including the date, time and location of the incident; the police officers involved and the nature of the complaint. You also may be able to initiate the complaint in one of the following ways:

  • By telephone;
  • By email;
  • Online;
  • By writing to them in a letter; and
  • In person by making an appointment with them.

Before initiating a complaint to the Police Ombudsman, check whether you would be within the time limit for doing so.

Step 2: You should be aware that your complaint may also be recorded on a register of complaints kept by the ombudsman. It is also best to make clear to an independent office/ombudsman if you are worried about what could happen if your complaint is sent to the police force, i.e. if you think there are serious risks involved or if something bad might happen to you or someone else.

Step 3: Generally, the police will first try to resolve your complaint informally, through explanation and dialogue.

Step 4: Where the complaint is not resolved, it may be referred to an investigating officer of the police service. The investigating officer will endeavour to gather all the relevant facts pertaining to your complaint.

Step 5: It is likely the officer will seek to talk to you, along with witnesses or other people who have information regarding your complaint, as well as the police officers about whom you have complained. This could involve separate interviews or a hearing where all attend.

Step 6: This will then be summarised in an investigative report, which may make a recommendation to prosecute or discipline.

Example: The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Kenya)

In Kenya, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (“IPOA“) is the independent body which investigates complaints against the police.

How to complain:

  • By phoning the complaints management team
  • By emailing the complaints team
  • By writing a letter to the IPOA
  • Or visiting a police station itself.

What to include in your complaint:

  • Your name and contact details.
  • Details of the incident you want to complain of, including when it happened, what happened, and who was involved.
  • If possible, try also to include: the name or other identifying details of the officer you want to complain about and any other person (such as witnesses) and any other relevant evidence such as photographs or doctors’ reports.

You should check to see if the procedure for making a complaint in your country contains similar requirements.

6

What Happens if You Win?

If your complaint is successful, there are several possible outcomes. Examples include the police:

  • Reviewing a policy, process or procedure, and making changes, to ensure the same thing does not happen again;
  • Offering you an apology;
  • Giving officers training to improve their performance.
  • Holding a misconduct meeting which could result in a written warning to the police officer’s personal file;
  • Holding a misconduct hearing which could result in a written warning on the police officer’s file, or in more serious cases, result in dismissal of the officer; and/or
  • The initiation of a criminal investigation into the misconduct.

It is important to be aware that complaints to an independent body will generally not result in financial compensation.

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