Held over Zoom, the event involved a discussion of the means by which citizens can complain against the police.

A University at Albany associate professor presented at the Binghamton University Campus Citizen Review Board (CCRB) 2022 Speakers Bureau.

As part of the CCRB speakers series, Robert E. Worden, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, was invited to discuss the relationship between citizens and police in an event titled, “Complaining against or about the Police: Citizens’ Perceptions, Options and Choices.”

The CCRB was established to bridge the gap of communication between the BU campus community and the Binghamton’s New York State University Police (UPD), by promoting accountability, reviewing reports against police misconduct and making recommendations on handling complaints.

Worden began by stating that his presentation would summarize findings of citizen complaints and citizen oversight research conducted by him and his colleagues. He prefaced his analysis of the data with an explanation of why citizen oversight can be deemed necessary, stating that independent police investigations lack accountability.

“The rationale for citizen oversight, beyond the citizen oversight that resides in an elected mayor or an appointed city manager, rests on the presumption that police would not investigate their own and ultimately counter-complainants would be discouraged,” Worden said. “Investigations would be half-hearted, and that consequently the deterrent function that discipline should play would be undermined by procedures that made it unlikely that misconduct would be punished.”

Worden said one of the biggest discrepancies within policing is community policing. According to Worden, while police may pay more attention to incivility, citizens may define such acts as crimes in one instance, but as salient issues in another instance.

This perspective of accountability is what prompted Worden’s analysis of four surveys on residential populations, answering his questions on what prompts a civilian to report dissatisfaction and the rate of reports.

“We don’t know about how much, nor do we know about the recording of other sources of dissatisfaction,” Worden said. “Or what factors influence citizens’ decisions to complain. About what do they complain, or not complain? Who complains and does time [or] context matter? Finally, to whom or what are complaints directed? And ultimately, it was what outcome for that complainant.”

The first survey, conducted in 1977 as a part of the Police Services Study (PSS), crossed 24 jurisdictions of varying size, including police departments in St. Louis, Tampa and Rochester, to small suburban departments, surveying about 12,000 residents in each of the 60 neighborhoods focused on. The survey asked the residents about their contact with the police in the preceding 12 months, whether they had any reason to complain about the police service and if they took action to complain.

“I’ll mention though, that at least 237 of those were characterized, in the data, as neighborhood complaints such as, especially, requests for more police presence or visibility or complaints concerning, say a traffic signal, rather than individual complaints and some are not classifiable in either of those categories,” Worden said. “The most common form of misconduct was discourtesy, as citizens saw it. Other reasons for complaint stemmed, in many instances, from officers not taking steps, or taking steps, to resolve citizens’ problems that were not sufficient in the citizens’ eyes.”

Among the respondents, 744 said they had a reason to complain in the preceding year, an estimated reporting rate of 36 percent, comparable to the findings on the rate at which citizens reported victimizations to the police, according to Worden. While most residents did not report the crime, a third did.

The second was the Police-Public Content Survey (PPCS), conducted by Worden himself, administered most recently in 2008. The survey obtained nationwide data on use of police force following the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Worden said that nearly 58,000 respondents were surveyed and asked about their contact with the police, the nature of the contact and features of the interaction from their perspective within the preceding 12 months.

“Overall, of those 9,549 people, 930 said they regarded police conduct as improper, and of those, 62, or 6.7 percent reportedly filed a complaint,” Worden said. “Now, consider four overlapping groups of respondents. [Among] almost 10,000 with contact, 121 said that in their most recent contact, the officer used or threatened force. And of those, about three-quarters said that the force was excessive. More than 4,400 people had a contact in the form of a traffic stop, [and] 13.3 percent of those thought that the stop was not legitimate, [or] was not made for legitimate reasons.”

According to Worden, 728 respondents said the officer was disrespectful.

After reviewing the last two surveys, Worden concluded by saying a citizen’s definition of officer misconduct either prompts them to file a complaint or to ignore the misconduct based on the implications of the data analyzed.

“And part of the reason for the low rate of reporting is that some of the people whose contacts involve police impropriety do not define it as something about which to complain,” Worden said. “But another part of the reason is that aggrieved persons sometimes direct their grievances elsewhere, rather than pursuing a formal adjudicative process.”

The presentation ended with Worden sharing his own thoughts on the implications of unreported complaints, describing them as missed education opportunities for both police and citizens.

“[Reporting complaints is] educational for the police, in diagnosing systemic issues in service delivery, such as training [and] policy, and educational for citizens as well, as concerns may be based on a misunderstanding of what police may or may not have the authority to do,” Worden said.

BU President Harvey Stenger, who had attended the event, applauded the work the CCRB and Worden has done, and addressed the difficulty that came with the timing of the board’s implementation, which was during the trial of the officers involved in killing George Floyd in May 2020.

“Do we have it right yet?” Stenger said. “No, a lot of work to do. The first implementation report had a lot of holes in it, and we’re working to fill those holes. But, with any process, it takes some time. And I want to thank the members of the [CCRB] that are on here and leadership of the review board to sticking with us, because I think we are breaking new ground and we do have an opportunity to change how all police departments can have oversight.”