Following a meeting Aug. 1 that included representatives from three local law enforcement agencies and members of Statesboro's African-American community, Chief Deputy Jared Akins of the Sheriff’s Office said he learned that the office needs to make the public better aware of how complaints about officers’ actions are handled, he said.
“We have a very strict process with Internal Affairs and the complaints process — the Police Department does also and so does GSU — but I think that’s one thing that a lot of people just didn’t have an understanding of, so we realize now that we probably need to put that out there a little bit more,” Akins said.
Local law enforcement agencies have policies in place outlining proper officer behavior, as well as regarding proper ways to report complaints and the manner in which those complaints are handled.
The Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, Statesboro Police Department and Georgia Southern University Department of Public Safety all encourage citizens to file legitimate complaints against officers or deputies. Akins noted that many complaints are unfounded, but each complaint is reviewed and taken seriously.
GSU Police interim Chief Laura McCullough and Statesboro Police Cpl. Justin Samples also said they want to assure the public that all complaints filed are checked out and investigated.
If a law enforcement officer’s behavior warrants a complaint, there are proper ways to handle such matters, Akins said.
“Our agency has a standardized complaint form which is available in the lobby of the sheriff's office and can be obtained via email if the complainant lives outside of this jurisdiction,” he said. “The form functions as a witness statement by the complainant and includes all necessary contact information which our (two) internal affairs investigators will need to re-contact the complainant as the case progresses.”
GSU, Statesboro complaints
McCullough said “Anyone wishing to make a complaint against one of our officers may do so at any time at our office. When they come in they just need to tell the dispatchers at the front the reason they are there and they will have a supervisor come take their complaint. We do ask that they put the complaint in writing so that command staff will have all of the facts and it can be fully investigated.”
Regarding the Statesboro police, “Complaints are accepted from any source, whether made in person, by mail, by email, or by phone,” said Samples. “Individuals are encouraged to submit complaints in person; however, it is not required. In situations where this is not possible, an officer or supervisor may meet with the complainant in a mutually convenient location. Complaints shall be accepted from anonymous sources, juveniles, and persons under arrest so long as the complaint contains sufficient factual information to warrant an investigation.”
If a complaint involves allegations of excessive force by a Statesboro police officer, the person filing the complaint will be asked to sign a form authorizing the release of medical records to the police department, he said.
“This is a request only. However, they will be informed that without their consent, the allegations will be more difficult to investigate.”
The complaint forms are official documents, and filing a false report or making false accusations can be considered a crime, Akins said.
“A complaint may be an allegation, whether made by a fellow employee or a citizen, that an employee has committed an act of misconduct,” Samples said.
How complaints are handled
After a complaint is received, officials at each agency begin reviewing the incident.
“Once a complaint has been filed, it is initially investigated by the patrol lieutenants” at GSU, McCullough said. “Their findings are then forwarded to command staff for review and any disciplinary actions necessary. Depending on the seriousness of the complaint, it may go directly to command staff or internal affairs for investigation.”
If the internal affairs division is involved, the complaints are investigated by the criminal investigations supervisor and his second in command, she said. “Any decisions concerning the complaint are made depending on the findings of the investigation. All are reviewed by the chief of police and their designee.”
The Statesboro Police Department handles complaints in a similar way.
“To ensure the integrity of the Statesboro Police Department, all alleged or suspected personnel misconduct is thoroughly investigated,” Samples said. “This is done to clear the innocent, to protect their reputations, to increase morale and the effectiveness of law enforcement operations and to establish the guilt of transgressors and facilitate prompt and just corrective action.”
Any allegation of misconduct will be investigated by the shift supervisor, the bureau commander or the designated internal affairs investigator, he said. “After a complaint has been taken it will be the responsibility of the lieutenant or sergeant to document and perform the necessary investigation regarding the complaint. “
Any witnesses will be interviewed and evidence will be collected. The lieutenant will also obtain a statement from the employee. In most cases, the lieutenant will complete the investigation, he said.
Internal affairs will be involved if the complaint is an alleged violation of law, excessive force, or a dismissible offense for violation of department or Statesboro City policy.
After being properly documented, all investigation findings are summarized and recommendations for action, if any, are forwarded to the police major for review within 10 days of receipt, Samples said. “The police major will review the complaint. After that, the major will forward it to the public safety director, who has final approval on all findings of complaints.”
Regarding complaints against a Bulloch County sheriff’s deputy or jailer, “low level” allegations such as rudeness or unprofessional behavior may be handled by the deputy’s sergeant or lieutenant, Akins said. “Allegations which expose the sheriff's office to liability, uses of force which cause significant injury, or potential criminal allegations are investigated exclusively by one of the two internal affairs investigators.”
Complaints procedures are governed by disciplinary and internal affairs policies. Akins receives all complaint forms and assigns the complaint to the appropriate level of supervision for investigation based on criteria set out in the disciplinary policy, he said.
An investigator will contact the complainant, witnesses are identified and asked to provide statements, video footage is reviewed if available, and statements are collected from the deputy involved, he said.
Once the investigation gathers all information available, the “preponderance of evidence” standard is applied to the case to see if there is a better than 50 percent chance that the allegations are true. “This is the nationally recognized standard in internal affairs cases.”
Valid complaints can lead to discipline, termination
If allegations against a sheriff’s deputy are sustained, the deputy is disciplined according to policy, and a notice is permanently added to the deputy's personnel file. If the complaint is not sustained, the complainant is notified of that fact, Akins said.
“This process ensures that all complaints are thoroughly investigated and documented and that both the complainant and deputy enjoy due process protection,” he said. “If potential criminal allegations are sustained, our agency contacts the GBI to pursue the criminal case as a neutral third party to ensure transparency.”
Sheriff Lynn Anderson and Akins can each independently order an internal affairs investigation without a formal complaint being filed if either feels that a deputy's actions are outside accepted policy, he said. “Our internal affairs investigators have both been through mandated training on the subject and attend refresher courses each year.”
After a Statesboro police employee complaint is filed, if the allegations are found to be valid, the complaint will be sent to the shift lieutenant for discipline or counseling, if applicable. All completed complaint investigations and internal affairs cases are filed with the internal affairs computer tracking system, Samples said.
Statesboro PD complaints
All investigations of Statesboro Police Department employees accused of misconduct will conclude with one of five findings.
If a complaint is listed as sustained, it means evidence supports the allegations. A “sustained other” label means “misconduct other than that charged occurred,” he said. If a complaint is found to be false, it is listed as “unfounded.”
If there is no evidence as to whether a complaint is true or not, it is listed as “not sustained.” If a complaint is found to be true, but the officer’s behavior and response were “lawful and proper,” the incident is listed as “exonerated,” he said.
Most people who speak to an officer or supervisor about concerns choose not to file formal complaints, but are instead satisfied with simply voicing the complaint, Samples said.
McCullough said disciplinary actions, if found necessary, are handled in the same manner as the other agencies, by following university policy.
Complaints this year
Within the past year, 20 complaints were registered and investigated by Bulloch County sheriff’s supervisors, Akins said.
“This includes complaints filed using the complaint forms and investigations initiated by the sheriff or myself,” he said. “The most common type of investigation is for use of force, and the vast majority of these have been conducted without any official complaint being filed by a civilian.”
GSU police received a total of six complaints against officers in the last calendar year, McCullough said.
“I cannot comment on the findings of any complaints as they are a part of employees’ personnel records,” she said. “Most complaints however, usually occur after a traffic violation encounter.
Statesboro police received have received seven complaints since Jan. 1, 2014, according to Samples. There was one for rudeness and one for racial profiling. Samples said investigations of both did not find violations.
A complaint of unbecoming behavior by an officer is still under investigation, while another similar complaint is listed as exonerated.
A complaint of rudeness was unfounded, and a complaint of excessive force was not sustained, he said.
One complaint listed as “other was unfounded and a second similar complaint was listed as exonerated, he said.
Akins did not list details of the 20 cases reported this year. He said some cases do result in disciplinary action and also termination, but did not indicate any of the 20 incidents he listed ended in either.
“We work diligently to clean our own house so that we all play by the rules established by the sheriff,” he said. “Also, the internal affairs process acts to exonerate deputies falsely accused of offenses. “
Samples said none of the complaints led to termination or discipline.
“We have had some complaints that led to disciplinary action, but I am not aware of any complaints that led to any terminations,” McCullough said.
Policy on behavior
All three agencies have strict policies regarding officer and deputy behavior. McCullough said GSU police officers are expected to diligently follow the policy, which dictates officers display courtesy at all times.
The policy reads, in part, “Personnel shall be courteous to the public. Personnel shall be tactful in the performance of their duties, shall control their tempers, and exercise patience and discretion. In the performance of their duties, personnel shall not use coarse, violent, profane, or insolent language or gestures, and shall not express any prejudice concerning sex, race, religion, politics, national origin, lifestyle, or similar personal characteristics”
Sheriff’s deputies are expected to display the same behavior, Akins said.
“Sheriff Anderson holds his deputies to the highest standards as peace officers serving all citizens of Bulloch County,” he said. “We will not tolerate actions which violate … policies or state law.”
However, many complaints are not valid and come from people who are angered by being forced to obey the law or punished for breaking the law, he said.
“We will not tolerate false or exaggerated complaints against honest deputies performing their duties within policy or law. Not every complaint can be sustained and result in punishment, just as every criminal case cannot result in the arrest and punishment of a suspect in a court of law.”
Such fairness is also exhibited by Statesboro police policies, Samples said.
“The primary objectives of administrative and internal investigations are to protect the public. The public has the right to expect efficient, fair, and impartial law enforcement services. Therefore, any misconduct by Department personnel must be detected, thoroughly investigated and properly adjudicated to assure the maintenance of these qualities.”
An officer’s actions reflect upon the entire department, he said.
“The department often is evaluated and judged by the conduct of individual members. It is imperative that the entire organization not be subjected to public censure because of misconduct by one or more of its personnel. When an informed public knows that Statesboro Police Department investigates and adjudicates all allegations of misconduct against its members fairly and honestly, then the public will be less likely to feel any need to raise a cry of indignation over alleged incidents of misconduct.”
But officers are also protected from unfairness.
“Employees must be protected from false allegations of misconduct. This can only be accomplished through a consistently thorough investigative process.
“Our officers are expected to follow the oath of office, Police Canon of Ethics, and the Statesboro Police Department mission statement and core values,” he said.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.