Local law enforcement complaint procedures under scrutiny amid new calls for accountability

Accountability in handling complaints has become a front-burner concern for Bellingham’s
police department and other local law enforcement agencies — and members of the community.

By Stella Harvey

— Three months after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, local Black Lives Matter protests are calling for reduction of police budgets and re-examination of how police are held accountable to the communities they are sworn to serve. 

Both the Bellingham Police Department (BPD) and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) have complaint procedures in place for the public to give feedback to officers and departments. These procedures and their administration have faced scrutiny before. But with a new call for accountability, community members are raising new questions about their fairness and effectiveness.

Locally, organizations and activists have varying ideas — ranging from enhancing current processes to abolishing them — about how these procedures could be improved to better address community concerns about local policing.

Policing their own

Public complaints about police behavior to both BPD and WCSO can be made online or in person. Incoming complaints are classified by the department as informal, formal or in some cases incomplete.

BPD’s website provides instructions on how to file a complaint in English, Spanish, Russian and German. The complaint form requires the complainant’s name, address, phone number, the police officer’s name and badge number, the date and location of the reported incident and the details of the event that took place. 

BPD Information Officer Claudia Murphy said complaints are first reviewed by the officer’s direct supervisor, who categorizes the complaint. According to Murphy, informal complaints involve minor issues such as ticketing or first-time incidents.

“Sometimes it is just that the complainant is heard and feels listened to. Sometimes the complainant is satisfied with the supervisor having a talk with the officer about how the complainant felt,” Murphy said. “There are endless solutions, but it revolves around having the conversation with the complainant and keeping them in the process.”

According to Murphy, a complaint is made formal if the supervising officer determines an internal investigation is warranted, or if the complaining party requests further investigation. Murphy said an investigation is opened if an officer is accused of violating policy, an officer has recurring offenses or if the complaint involves particular issues, such as the use of force. 

Undersheriff Doug Chadwick said WCSO also has different formal and informal complaint procedures. Informal complaints often take the form of a constituent calling the officer’s supervisor to voice concerns. Formal complaints are processed through a complaint form on the county’s website and can lead to an administrative investigation if an officer is accused of misconduct such as violating policy, excessive use of force or violating someone’s constitutional rights, according to Chadwick.

“If there was an official complaint made and somebody was alleging misconduct that we believe would become disciplinary, then it would come to myself and the sheriff,” Chadwick said. “We would then direct an inspector, a person that works in the Office of Professional Standards, to initiate an administrative investigation.”

Multilayered review 

In a formal complaint at the BPD, the deputy chief and the chief review the complaint together and direct a lieutenant with the Office of Professional Responsibility to open an internal investigation, Murphy said. Six lieutenants are trained in conducting internal investigations, which involve conducting interviews with the officer, complainant and witnesses, and collecting evidence such as body-worn-camera footage.

When the investigation is complete, Murphy said, it is sent up the chain of command for a layered review and disciplinary recommendation process. The chief of police reviews the report and recommendations and makes the final decision on how to implement discipline, if necessary, according to Murphy.

At the WCSO, Chadwick said that when an investigation is completed, the report goes through a tiered review process before the final report and recommendation are sent to the sheriff. 

If discipline is warranted, the sheriff holds a pre-disciplinary hearing at which the officer has the opportunity to present any additional information or reasoning for his or her actions, Chadwick said. The sheriff then decides on the final form of discipline. 

“Verbal warnings, a written warning, suspension, termination: all are disciplinary actions. Coaching and counseling (are) not disciplinary, but it’s something we record and it’s considered as part of their performance evaluation each year,” Chadwick said.

According to data provided by the sheriff’s Office of Professional Standards, 104 official complaints were filed between July 2015 and June 2020, with 63% filed against detectives or law enforcement deputies working patrol assignments. Complaints against correction officers at the Whatcom County Jail made up 15% of the total complaints.

Of all 104 complaints, 13% went on to corrective action, while 76% had no further action. In 2% of complaints, the employee resigned. No data entered for 7% of complaints.

At the BPD, Murphy said discipline depends on the severity of the complaint and the outcome of the investigation and can range from coaching and counseling up to termination. (Data on complaints from BPD was requested but had not been received at the time of publication.)

Once the investigation is complete and the chief of police has accepted the findings, Murphy said the department sends a final notice to the complainant within 20 days. This notice includes a copy of the original complaint and the findings of the investigation, but not the disciplinary actions.

The guilds’ roles

Law enforcement officers in both BPD and WCSO are represented by local unions, the Bellingham Police Guild and the Whatcom County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild. Police guilds bargain for more than better wages and fair working conditions. They also bargain for how a complaint or violation of policy is handled in all aspects, including questioning, what information is released to the public and disciplinary action. Locally, both guilds’ two-year, collective bargaining agreements set out the agreed complaint, investigation and disciplinary procedures.

For example, Article 29 (Personnel Records) in the “Agreement By and Between the City of Bellingham and the Bellingham Police Guild for the Years 2018-2020” states:

The Employer will promptly notify an employee upon receipt of any request by a third party (someone not working for the City) for disciplinary or other confidential information in the employee’s personnel file. If practical, the Employer will provide at least forty-eight (48) hours’ notice before releasing any such information. The Employer will allow the employee and the Guild the opportunity to legally object to unwarranted disclosures.

And also in Article 29:

Departmental written reprimands shall be removed from the employee’s official personnel file(s) after three (3) years, assuming the employee has not received any other similar or related discipline during that period. An employee’s departmental written reprimands which have been removed pursuant to this requirement may not be used against the employee by the Department in any subsequent disciplinary determination.

Fear of filing

Bellingham Police Chief David Doll said he sees BPD’s complaint procedure as a way to hear from the community.

The idea of complaints makes some “shudder,” Doll said. “I don’t because it’s always an opportunity for us to get information from the community on how we’re doing. Anytime I can get feedback, both positive and some concerns or complaints, that’s a good thing.”

Doll said he knows that not everyone may feel comfortable filing a complaint with the current procedure. “The idea that we have a group of community members that are fearful of reporting misconduct to me has been a concern for many years,” Doll said.

Complaints may be incomplete, said BPD’s Claudia Murphy, because a supervisor can’t reach the complaining party to ask more questions. A complaint can be submitted anonymously, but there isn’t a follow-up on the status of the complaint or involvement of the complainant in an investigation. 

New feedback pathways 

Doll said the BPD and the city are working with various community groups in looking for new ways for community members to safely and comfortably provide feedback.

Barbara Rofkar, local organizer with the Civil Advocacy Committee (CAC), worries that people of color and other marginalized groups who may have been mistreated or discriminated against by police officers may not feel comfortable making a complaint with their name and personal information attached. 

The CAC seeks to protect civil rights and began examining Bellingham’s city government complaint procedures as part of their work over the last three years. Rofkar noted that if people who have had negative experiences with law enforcement do not feel safe coming forward with their experience, the police department and the city may not know the ways police officers have negatively impacted community members.

In June, the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center (WDRC) launched Safe Spaces, offering another avenue to file complaints with the City of Bellingham. According to their website, Safe Spaces provides an additional option for people “who feel unable, unwilling, or previously unsuccessful in bringing their complaint directly to the City of Bellingham.”

Safe Spaces Program Coordinator Britt Sullateskee said the City first approached the WDRC to create a new outlet for feedback in 2017, and in 2018, the center completed a 27-page report (ref. p. 24) discussing what city officials and community members wanted out of a new complaint procedure.

WRDC Executive Director Moonwater said Safe Spaces doesn’t investigate concerns or complaints, but documents concerns or complaints as well as the preferred resolution, then passes that information on to the appropriate city department.

Community members can file complaints about any city department or employee over the phone, through email or by submitting an online intake-form on their website, Sullateskee said. In the near future, the WDRC hopes to offer “safe” in-person filing. 

Like the BPD’s procedure, the complaint form asks for the complainant’s name (although complaints may be submitted anonymously), contact information and details of the incident. The form also asks if the complainant has already filed a complaint with the city, how or if their complaint was previously resolved and what outcome they are looking for now. Once a complaint is sent to the city, it becomes a part of the public record.

Sullateskee follows-up in five to seven business days with complainants who have identified themselves to discuss the outcomes of their complaint. However, with anonymous complaints, the WDRC cannot follow-up on how the city responded.

Supporting anonymity

The CAC’s Rofkar said she is pleased the city is creating new avenues for constituents to be heard but the current Safe Spaces model doesn’t resolve the issues around anonymity. Without more follow-up options for complainants who would like to remain anonymous, Rofkar is concerned incidents will keep falling through the cracks.

“How do we have a complaint process where people are anonymous but can find out what the results [of their complaint] are?” Rofkar asked.

Rofkar said the CAC meets with Doll monthly to discuss and give feedback on a variety of issues and is currently advocating for the creation of an ombudsman — a city employee who receives and investigates public complaints independently. Rofkar said an ombudsman could protect the identities of anonymous complainants during investigation and follow-up.

“That person could then get back to the anonymous person and tell them what the results are and try to settle [the complaint],” Rofkar said.

Doll said while he supports the hiring of an ombudsman or another city employee to oversee complaints and investigations, he’s concerned it would be difficult for one person to field complaints for all city departments.

In the future, Moonwater said, the WDRC could work towards communicating the outcome of an anonymous complaint without breaking anonymity.

“I think as we move forward, we might find ourselves in a situation with anonymous complaints where … we do have the contact information for the person, but that’s not information that’s being forwarded on to the city,” she said. “So we could serve in a unique opportunity to maintain communication with the complainant.”

Sullateskee said in the meantime, the city will release a quarterly report of the Safe Spaces complaints which will include complaint resolutions. Safe Spaces, according to its website, is intended to supplement the City of Bellingham’s complaint process, not replace it.

Structural change

Michael Prostka, an organizer with the student group Shred the Contract whose objectives include abolishing prisons and the police, said in conversations about police reform and accountability procedures that he would like to see more focus placed on structural change.

According to Prostka, while it is valuable to question the current mechanisms that are meant to hold police officers and departments accountable, reforming these procedures can also “continue to just build upon the system.” In working to improve accountability procedures and contribute to the larger mission of public safety, ending police brutality and mass incarceration, organizers need to keep an abolitionist perspective in mind.

Prostka said communities should always be reviewing the systems that are in place to hold people and organizations accountable. Examining the structure of organizations such as the police and finding ways to make their systems fair from the ground up is more effective than making small changes to existing systems, Prostka said.

Stella Harvey graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in journalism and women, gender and sexuality studies. She grew up in Seattle, and aspires to be a local government reporter and investigative journalist.