Advantages of lodging a complaint
While people who lodge complaints about police officers’ misconduct are often dissatisfied with the complaints process, there are important reasons to lodge a complaint.
First, if your complaint is substantiated, then the police officers involved in the incident can be disciplined and even charged with criminal offences. Your complaint will be included on the police officer’s professional file, which is taken into account if that police officer is considered for a promotion.
Second, documents produced as a result of your complaint (e.g. interviews with the police officer) may assist a future criminal or civil case.
In some instances, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) may prosecute the police officers involved in the incident. There have been several recent examples of IBAC doing this. Be aware that IBAC can investigate and prosecute a matter even when a complaint has not been directly lodged with them. For example, IBAC may become aware of a matter through the media and chose to investigate it.
Third, it is important that police oversight authorities, such as the Victoria Police’s Professional Standards Command (PSC) and IBAC, are aware when police misconduct occurs so they are alerted to patterns and systemic issues. This allows police officers who repeatedly engage in misconduct to be identified internally.
When a complaint is lodged with the PSC against a police officer, the complaint is recorded on Victoria Police’s Register of Complaints and Serious Incidents Database.
If systemic issues are recognised, then changes and policies can be implemented to address the issues and stop misconduct (for example) reoccurring in the future.
IBAC regularly audits aspects of policing and frequently cites complaint statistics and information received from complaints in these audits; these audits are reviewed by the Victorian Government.
Difficulties of lodging a complaint
There can be drawbacks to lodging a complaint about a police officer. For some complainants, it can be a confronting and dissatisfying experience. Your complaint will most likely be investigated by another police officer. Making statements to the police officer who is investigating your complaint can be stressful. In rural areas and some suburbs, it can be uncomfortable and intimidating to be in close proximity to the police officer(s) you are complaining about.
There are several possible outcomes to a police complaint investigation. However, only a small number of complaints about police misconduct are substantiated (i.e. proven to be true). In some situations, the conduct of the complainant during the incident(s) being investigated – rather than the behaviour of the relevant police officer – becomes the focus of the investigation. While this does not occur in all police investigations of misconduct, it is often the case that the favoured perspective is that of the police officer who is the subject of the complaint.
The fact that few investigations about Victorian police officers are conducted independently of Victoria Police plays a role in the low substantiation rates of complaints about police officer(s).
If charges are laid against you that are related to the incident you are complaining about, it may be better to delay making the complaint (see ‘Lodging a complaint when charges are laid or anticipated’ in ‘Timing your complaint against Victoria Police‘). In these circumstances, get legal advice before lodging a complaint (see Chapter 2.4: Legal services that can help).
Also, proving that your allegations are true can be difficult. This is because complaints often arise from incidents in police interview rooms, in police cells, during police raids, and during arrests. Often in these situations, there are no independent or reliable witnesses. Also, people who may have witnessed the incident(s) may be unable or unwilling to give evidence to support your claim; for example, witnesses may fear self-incrimination, may be traumatised, have memory loss, or have a physical or mental illness.
Sometimes the police officer(s) will admit the allegations are true, but will claim that their actions were justified; for example, that it was necessary to use force against the complainant because the complainant assaulted them or resisted arrest.
Also, as police officers usually work in pairs (and often in larger groups), it is typical for more than one police officer to provide a sworn statement, or to give evidence in court, about an incident. It is rare for police officers to give evidence against other police officers in the context or a complaint by a citizen. Thus, what other police officers say may be contrary to the version of events put forward by the complainant. Note that police officers are accustomed to giving evidence and responding to questions in court; whereas you may not be.
Almost certainly, the police will have written records about what happened between you and them, especially if the incident resulted in you being charged with a criminal offence.