What to Do With the Police Misconduct Report

Always keep the original copy of a police misconduct report you’ve filled out. Make photocopies of your report for other people as needed. Never give away your only copy.

Deliver your information to the victim or the victim’s attorney within a week. That way, if the victim has been charged with a crime, his criminal defense attorney will have a better chance of heading off the case. And if the victim wants to sue the police, his civil rights lawyer won’t miss the deadlines—some as short as two weeks—for the first steps in a lawsuit (“giving notice of claim”).

How you use the police misconduct report depends on whether you’re a victim or a witness, and on whether anyone expects to go to court.

1.   You’re the victim. Choose (a) or (b) below.

            (a)  You’ve been charged with a crime and/or you’re 
            thinking of suing the police.

    You must be sure to give the report only to your 
    own lawyer(s). If you even show the police misconduct 
    report to other people, it will no longer be protected by 
    the attorney/client privilege—and that would be very 
    disadvantageous in a legal battle (see Maintaining 

(b) You’re absolutely certain that you’re not going to be charged with a crime and you’re not going to sue the police.

Submit a complaint to the local police review organization. This may be a private community organization, it may be part of the city or county government, or it may be part of the police department. Normally, such an organization will have its own report form, usually much shorter than the police misconduct report. Attach a copy of the police misconduct report to the organization’s form, so that you provide as much detail as possible.

(Although police review agencies rarely discipline police officers, your complaint may be helpful to another victim in the future. That victim’s lawyer will seek out past complaints, to show that the officer has a history of abusive behavior.)

2.   You’re a witness. Choose (a) or (b)

        (a) The victim has been charged with a crime and/or is 
           thinking of suing the police.

              Give copies of the police misconduct report to the 
                 victim and the victim’s lawyer

        (b) The victim is definitely not going to be charged with a crime and is not going to sue the police.

              Submit a complaint to the victim and to the police 
     review organization, see 1(b). You don’t have to be 
     a victim to submit a complaint.

How to find the victim:

If you don’t know the victim, try asking people in the area where the incident occurred (neighbors, workers, students). Be persistent. As a last resort, leave notices where the incident happened (on telephone poles, lampposts, fences, etc.), explaining that you witnessed police misconduct and are willing to talk to the victim. Give clear instructions on how to contact you. If you leave notices, the police may contact you, too, although you’re certainly not required to speak with them.

How to find the criminal defense lawyer who is representing the victim:

If the victim has been charged with a crime, he should have a lawyer, either a private attorney or the public defender. First, you’ve got to get the victim’s name. Once you have that, call the public defender’s office and/or the office of court records,1 and ask: “Has a case been filed against ________?”  (Remember to refer to the victim of police misconduct as the “defendant,” because you’re asking about someone who’s been charged with a crime.) If a case has been filed, ask for the name of the defendant’s lawyer. (Make sure you’re getting the name of the defense attorney, not the prosecutor.) Be polite but persistent. Sometimes it takes a few days for the charges to be filed and sometimes whoever answers the phone may not be able or willing to help. So be prepared to call back several times, or go to the courthouse or the public defender’s office in person. (If the victim was arrested by federal officers or on federal property, make sure you call the clerk of the U.S. District Court or the Office of the Federal Defender.)

How to find a police misconduct lawyer:

You want a lawyer who does mostly police misconduct cases, not one who does a little of everything, or who handles some other area of law, like divorces or immigration. You can find a police misconduct lawyer by calling the local offices of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), or the local Bar Association. Don’t give up just because the first few lawyers say they can’t help. If more than one lawyer is willing to take the case, interview them all to see which seems best. Usually, police misconduct cases are taken on contingency. This means that the victim doesn’t pay her lawyer up front; instead, the victim’s lawyer gets paid only if she wins the case—that’s why police misconduct lawyers are very selective about which cases they’ll accept. Your carefully written report may help convince a good lawyer to take the case in the first place, as well as being useful later on.2

Note: If there is a court case, you must check with the victim’s lawyer before talking to reporters. Obviously, publicity can be extremely helpful to someone who’s been victimized by the police, but you should work with the victim’s attorney to determine the best way to go about this. You need to find the right journalists to talk to, choose exactly what to say, and decide just when to break the story. The staff of local chapters of the NLG, NAACP or ACLU often has considerable experience in arranging publicity for political cases. You may want to ask them to work with the victim’s lawyer on fine-tuning the media strategy, writing press releases, etc.

1.  The office in which court records are kept goes by various names, such as: the Clerk's Office, the Clerk of the Court, the Criminal Records Division, the Records Department, etc.  Be patient and expect to make several phone calls before you hit the right office.  Sometimes there's one office for civil cases and another for criminal cases.  Usually, the office has a counter or window, and you can just explain to the clerk that you're trying to figure out whether a case has been filed against_______.

2.  When you're trying to get a lawyer to take a case on contingency, dress conservatively and be extremely organized.  The lawyer will be checking you out, wondering whether you'd be helpful in preparing the case and believable in court.  I f you don't make a good impression at the first meeting, you may not get another chance.