Walters: Misconduct complaints rare but heavily scrutinized


Civil rights activists emerged in the media after a video appeared online last week showing a California Highway Patrol officer repeatedly punching a woman on the ground of the side of the freeway while on top of her.

What happens when a complaint is filed against an officer, or when an incident of officer misconduct is alleged?

Although very few officers ever have complaints filed against them, a videotaped case of this magnitude creates serious doubt in the public’s eye about a department and its leadership.

The police executive has to answer to the media and the public about how the allegation of misconduct is investigated, as well as the outcome of the complaint.

Police executives and their top staff know how very essential it is to maintain the support of the community that they serve and that their officers treat everyone, at all times, with restraint and in a professional manner.

The law requires that they use only the amount of force reasonable given the circumstances as known to the officer at the time of the arrest. The need for force is measured by the severity of the crime, the danger to the person and the officer, as well as the risk of flight.

Making a determination of the appropriateness of the officer’s actions requires a team of specially trained investigators assigned to Internal Affairs.

They are charged with investigating every civil claim against the department and every citizen complaint of misconduct against an employee. The complaint process can take a matter of months to complete, depending on the complexity of the case. Each allegation is examined on its own merits.

Formal investigations require investigators to contact all available witnesses, including police officers, as well as examine any relevant physical evidence. They also gather all information pertinent to each allegation in the complaint.

In addition to the internal investigation process, if there is a misconduct allegation that could be criminal in nature, the local District Attorney’s staff will assign a team of expertly trained detectives to investigate the incident separately and independently from the law enforcement agency’s internal investigation.

In some cases, even the FBI may be involved in conducting its own independent investigation if there may be federal civil rights violations.

With multiple comprehensive reviews of the officers’ actions conducted by the department and the District Attorney and in some cases the FBI, the public can be rest assured that police conduct is strictly scrutinized, and that appropriate action will be taken in this case.

Walters retired as Santa Ana Police Chief last year. He now works as Executive Vice President of Evidence Based Inc. He can be reached at or 949-216-6814