Taking Action: Police Misconduct


When dealing with the police, there are basic things one can do to stay safe, or at least make a stressful situation safer. People are less threatening to an officer if they keep their hands in view, don't make sudden movements, never touch the officers or their equipment, and remain respectful at all times. Anything that detainees might do to give an officer reason to argue that they are dangerous will work against them. Such behavior could even lead to an aggressive reaction on the part of the police, and a charge of assault against the detainee. Just after someone has been stopped by an officer, it is a good idea to ask the officer if he or she is free to go. If the answer is yes, one might consider just walking away. If the police say an individual is not under arrest, but is not free to go, that person is being detained. Though being detained is not the same as being arrested, an arrest could follow.

An officer is required to have an explanation for such detention. You can ask the officer for an explanation of why you are being detained, though they may not answer your question. If the detention is later challenged, the officer will be required to provide the court with an explanation for the detainment. The person being detained does not have to answer any questions. Even though people who are being detained often feel that they are not being treated with respect, and may be stressed out or upset, maintaining a respectful and polite tone with the officer can go a long way toward staying safe. Especially if you are refusing to answer questions or identify yourself, use your own best judgment about how to speak to police officers.

If a person feels his or her rights have been violated by a police officer, it is important to document as many of the following as possible:

• Date, time, and location of the incident;

• The officer’s name, badge number, and squad car number;

• A physical description of the officer;

• The officer’s precinct number or division (possibly found on the brass insignia on the officer’s shirt collar); and

• Any witnesses present at the time (get names and phone numbers if possible).

Use of excessive force or violation of constitutional rights by a police officer can also give rise to a lawsuit against the police officer, the police department and the city council under the state and federal constitution.1

Document any injuries right away. If a person is injured, they should get medical care right away. Be sure to tell the caregiver that the injuries were caused by police and be certain it is noted in the medical record. Get a copy of the medical record when leaving the clinic or hospital. Have injuries photographed immediately, using good quality color film or a high resolution digital camera. If a healthcare facility offers to take photographs, have them use your camera or take copies of the photographs when you leave. Sit down right away and write down every detail about the incident. Ask any witnesses to do the same. Below are several ways to report police misconduct. Please note that the National Lawyers Guild does not encourage individuals to report police misconduct directly to police departments or city offices because of a historically high incidence of retaliation and non-response.

Making complaints to city agencies can be highly ineffective and discipline is historically and statistically unlikely. Frequently, there is very little action taken on reports of police misconduct. However, benefits of reporting to the city agencies include that there is a possibility (though unlikely) of officer discipline, a report that is substantiated may bolster any civil lawsuit that might be brought against the officer(s), reports can be used in class action lawsuits brought by non-profits on behalf of a group, and each individual report affects statistics and other information that is used to influence attempts to bring about changes in police policies and tactics.

For issues with the San Francisco Police Department, the most effective way to file a complaint of misconduct is to go to the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), located at 25 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94102. This will allow investigators to personally interview the person and to do a thorough job of completing the initial, and one of the most important, phases of the investigation of a complaint.2 For more information, click here.

For issues with the Oakland Police Department, a person can either call the 24-hour complaint hotline at (866) 214-8834 or the Citizens' Police Review Board Office at (510) 238-3159. Both of these offices have challenges that cause barriers to access and effectiveness. The OCC has inadequate funding, a small staff, and long delays in charging offending officers. Between 1996 and 2004, the OCC received more than 10,000 complaints and sustained only ten percent.3 The Oakland office no longer has public hearings, which indicates less accountability to the public. Individuals who experience police harassment or misconduct in Oakland can contact People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO) for assistance making a report at (510) 452-2010 or visit their website at www.peopleunited.org.

People who experience police harassment or misconduct in San Francisco or greater Bay Area can contact Community United Against Violence (CUAV) for support resources, assistance filing police misconduct reports, and courtroom advocacy. CUAV can be reached online at www.cuav.org, or via their multi-lingual hotline at (415) 333-4357. CUAV also offers walk-in appointments on Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 am - 1 pm at 170 A Capp Street, San Francisco, CA 94110.

Individuals anywhere in the country can visit the National Lawyers Guild’s National Police Accountability Project (NPAP) website at www.nlg-npap.org to locate attorneys and organizations that work with police misconduct issues across the country.

  1. Bivens v. Six Unknown Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). 

  2. Complaints, City & County of San Francisco’s Office of Citizen Complaints, Last visited August 1, 2012. 

  3. Fernandez, Sward, and Wallace, The Use of Force / Disciplines obstacles / Few complaints against police upheld – even fewer bring serious discipline, San Francisco Chronicle (Feb. 8, 2006) p. A1, Last visited August 1, 2012.