Deciding whether or not to lodge a complaint

Advantages of lodging a complaint

While people who lodge complaints about police misconduct are often dissatisfied with the complaints process, there are important reasons to lodge a complaint.

First, if your complaint is substantiated, then the police officers involved in the incident can be disciplined and even charged with criminal offences. Your complaint will be included on the police officer’s professional file, which is taken into account if that police officer is considered for a promotion.

Second, documents produced as a result of your complaint (e.g. interviews with the police officer) may assist a future criminal or civil case.

Third, it is important that police oversight authorities, such as the PCU and IBAC, are aware when police misconduct occurs so they are alerted to patterns and systemic issues. This allows police officers who repeatedly engage in misconduct to be identified internally. If systemic issues are recognised, then changes and policies can be implemented to stop them occurring in the future.

Difficulties of lodging a complaint

Lodging a complaint about a police officer can be confronting and dissatisfying. Your complaint will most likely be investigated by another police officer. Making statements to the police officer who is investigating your complaint can be stressful. In rural areas and some suburbs, it can be uncomfortable and frightening to be in close proximity to the police officer(s) you are complaining about.

Only a small number of complaints about police misconduct are substantiated (i.e. proven to be true). Some police investigators inappropriately excuse misconduct by police officer(s); instead, they focus on the complainant’s actual or suspected wrongdoing. While this does not occur in all police investigations of misconduct, it is certainly true that the investigating police officer(s) approach the investigation and adjudication of complaints against police officer(s) from the perspective of serving members of the police force. This lack of independence plays a role in the low substantiation rates of complaints about police officer(s).

If charges are laid against you that are related to the incident you are complaining about, it may be better to delay making the complaint (seeWhen charges are laid or anticipated”). In these circumstances, get legal advice before lodging a complaint (see Legal services that can help).

Also, proving that your allegations are true can be difficult. This is because complaints often arise from incidents in police interview rooms, in police cells, during police raids, and during arrests. Often in these situations, there are no witnesses (or no independent or reliable witnesses). Sometimes, the people who are witnesses to (or the victim of) such an incident are intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, are traumatised by the incident, have themselves recently committed a criminal offence, are physically or mentally unwell, or are intellectually disabled. These factors can make it more difficult to use such witnesses to prove allegations of police misconduct.

Sometimes the police officer(s) will admit the allegations are true, but will claim that their actions were justified; for example, that it was necessary to use force against the complainant because the complainant assaulted them or resisted arrest.

Also, as police officers usually work in pairs (and often in larger groups), it is typical for more than one police officer to provide a sworn statement, or to give evidence in court, about an incident. It is rare for police officers to give evidence against other police officers in the context or a complaint by a citizen. Thus, what other police officers say may be contrary to the version of events put forward by the complainant. Note that police officers are accustomed to giving evidence and responding to questions in court; whereas you may not be.

Almost certainly, the police will have written records about what happened between you and them, especially if the incident resulted in you being charged with a criminal offence.