Vargas: Surprise, surprise — complaints against police are down throughout state


The California Attorney General just released the 2014 annual report on Crime in California. The report is full of good news.

Almost every category of violent and property crime has decreased in the state. Homicides are down 4.3%, robberies have decreased 4.3% and property crimes are down 9.3 % over the last few years.

If you’ve been the victim of a crime this can’t seem accurate to you but the data is consistent. Just to give you an idea of how far we’ve come, according to the report in 1993 there were 4,095 reported homicides. In 2014 there were 1,697 reported homicides.

Of all the crime statistics that are gathered I always felt the homicide rate was amongst the most telling. The numbers are pretty accurate. Most people report murders. But across the board, the crime rate is at record-low levels.

This downward trend has continued despite increases in population and the downsizing of police departments across the state due to the recession.

You really have to give some credit to law enforcement for the good news. Advances in investigations, technology and training have all helped contribute to this trend.

Of course there is the problem that law enforcement may have been doing too good a job because the jails got filled up. But that is another public policy issue for another column.

In other good news, the report is clear on the fact complaints against police officers are down.

Yes, you read that right: The number of complaints filed against law enforcement officers in California has dropped. You wouldn’t think so given the media coverage of police over the last year.

In California we’ve gone from 17,032 complaints in 2013 to 15,693 in 2014. You would have to go all the way back to 1990 to find a number that low. And the numbers have been consistently going down since 1990.

This is not a new trend. It has been happening since long before Ferguson and the recent negative media attention. This proves that law enforcement agencies have been doing something right.

For years, agencies have been introducing dash cams and audio recorders and now body cams. Improved training has been provided to both supervisors and officers.

A lot of that training has involved better communications between the officers and the people they contact in the field.

I think the best training is supervisors sharing the latest “officers behaving badly” videos and discussing them with their staff almost daily. No one wants to be the guy who embarrasses the department and the profession.

My experience with police complaints is they were almost always about officer demeanor. It was rare to see a complaint about officers physically abusing people. They were usually “the officer was rude,” “the officer was condescending” or “the officer told me to have a nice day in a smirky way.”

Experts have provided numerous reasons for the trend of a decline in the number of complaints against cops: Officers are responding to the fact they are being watched all the time. Public sentiment is making officers more aware of the consequences of their actions. Audio recorders and body cameras are holding officers more accountable.

The public is also very aware they are being watched. Officers in the field are taking advantage of that fact and are quick to let potentially disruptive citizens know they are on camera.

The majority of us behave better when we know we’re being watched — unless, of course, alcohol or drugs are involved. Then the “stupid” part of the brain engages.

I’m not certain crime will continue to go down in record numbers. There is some evidence that property crimes are starting to climb and in major cities across the United States, homicide and aggravated assault rates are skyrocketing.

I am, however, very comfortable in predicting the number of complaints will continue on a downward trend. A lot has changed and will continue to change in the way police officers interact with the public. And from my perspective, that’s a good thing.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at