The Status of Research

Despite efforts on the part of civilians to monitor police conduct and measures taken by the police to modify their approaches to law enforcement, the issue of complaints against the police continues to persist. A sampling of recent newspaper headlines highlights this issue:

  • "Complaints against the police on the rise" (O'Flanagan)
  • "Commission, cops too close, hearing told" (Edmonton Sun, June 17, 2004, 22)
  • "Police shouldn't investigate themselves, forum told." (Thorne)
  • "Cop cleared of excessive use of force" (Harnett)
  • "RCMP resists oversight" ("RCMP resists")
  • "Police should not be investigating police" (Buffalo)

Several factors limit the relevance of current research on the effectiveness of civilian oversight. These are: the varying definitions of complaints, insufficient and incomplete documentation, and the types of research conducted.

Police misconduct is usually described in police service regulations of provincial Police Acts and other statutes governing police forces, internal policies of a police force, and codes of professional conduct. While there are many similarities between the various regulations and conduct codes, there are also substantial differences in defining what is meant by "discreditable conduct," "neglect of duty," "unnecessary exercise of authority," and other types of misconduct. Some police forces, as discussed below, do not define and categorize conflicts that are informally resolved as "complaints." This lack of consistency in defining complaints among various police jurisdictions severely limits the use of comparisons as a research tool (Fyfe).

Some authors argue that a broad-based classification system of complaints needs to be established (Holland). There have also been calls for the creation of a comprehensive code of practice detailing the rights of complainants and the rights of police officers, and the development of national guidelines to register complaints beyond the reports traditionally submitted to public officials by police forces. Major advances of this kind, however, have not occurred (United Kingdom Inspectorate).

A second limitation is that documentation on incidents reporting police misconduct within police forces and in civilian review bodies generally tends to be incomplete and insufficient for research purposes (Grant). The Calgary Police Service, for example, follows this practice:

With respect to record keeping, a public complaint is not formally documented as a "complaint" with the CPS until all opportunities for informal resolution have been exhausted or ruled out...The down side of this approach is that, unless the complaint came to the PSS [Professional Standards Section], no record of the complaint is kept and no statistics generated. When a complaint is reported or referred to the PSS, that office documents it as a "Contact Note". Contact Notes in the PSS are counted. If a complaint received by a District Office is referred to the PSS, it too will be counted. Otherwise, the District Offices of the CPS do not keep statistics on their complaints and that information is lost [JHSA's italics] (Calgary Police Commission 2002 Annual Report, 8).