Calling all complaints
For any criticism you might hear about the university police, the department has received a low number of formal complaints over the past three years.
Thirteen complaints ? ranging from excessive use of force to general misconduct ? were investigated internally, and all but two were considered unjustified. The two complaints the University of Wisconsin Police Department found to be valid involved an untimely investigation and offensive remarks unintentionally made by one officer.
Most of the unfounded complaints dealt with police behavior. A complaint filed Aug. 24, 2005 involved a ticket for a traffic stop violation and the possibility that ?it might be racially motivated.? A response letter from the police department said the traffic ticket should be settled in court and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest racial bias.
Documents explaining the 13 complaints were obtained by The Badger Herald through a Wisconsin open records law request. The complainants and officers involved were unable to be contacted for comment because UWPD blacked out their names, citing privacy reasons.
In an Oct. 25, 2005 response letter to the traffic stop complainant, university police said, ?The accusation that the traffic stop was ?biased and vindictive? would imply that [the officer] had prior knowledge of who you were and also had some reason to be vengeful. [The officer] had neither.?
Lt. Kenneth Kerl, who oversees complaints with UWPD Human Resources, said all formal complaints are investigated internally ? usually by an officer?s immediate supervisor ?unless there is probable cause of a serious criminal offense. That situation never occurred in the past three years, Kerl said.
Formal vs. informal complaints
Formal complaints filed against university police are considered the more serious crop because people have usually chosen against an informal resolution. Kerl said the department hands out an average of 12 to 15 complaint forms each year but only a few are returned.
Assistant Police Chief Dale Burke, who oversees Kerl and department operations, said the current process encourages people to consider their accusations sincerely before filing a written complaint.
?If you force somebody to put it in writing, they get the point that it needs to be accurate,? Burke said. ?For the ones that do get returned, those people are serious.?
The total number of formal complaints filed against university police may be reduced by the department?s actions to seek timely resolutions. Informal complaints ? those received by phone, e-mail, in person, etc. ? are not tracked by the department, but may still spur an internal investigation.
?The overwhelming number of what we call complaints are people that just want to be heard, so that?s what we do. We listen to them,? Burke said.
People who simply call the department and wish to complain are usually re-routed to the involved officer?s supervisor. That supervisor will try to understand the incident and what recourse the complainant wishes to be taken. Sometimes all people want is an explanation of the officer?s behavior, Kerl said.
In other cases, the supervisor needs to explain that the department is unable to address a person?s concerns. Some complaints must be directed to other police departments, and certain disputes over citations must be handled in the judicial system. Complaints investigated by university police, generally speaking, are behavior or policy-related.
In the traffic stop case, the complainant argued against a ticket received for running a red light and the officer?s ?biased and vindictive? behavior. The red light citation dispute was redirected to the courts, while the behavior complaint against the officer was examined internally.
Being of a more serious nature, formal complaints are tracked more closely by the department. Burke said a total of 13 over the past three years might show that the department has been doing a good job hiring and training its officers.
?I?m happy it?s a low number,? he said. ?I would like to think it speaks toward the consistently professional services we provide.?
The number could also reflect the department?s passive approach to educating people about their ability to complain or the lack of information online, several UW and UWPD officials acknowledged.
A passive approach to education
Unlike the surrounding city of Madison, the campus population gains thousands of new faces every year, mainly new students. That high turnover rate places a constant challenge on UW services to educate students about their available resources or in the case of complaints, their options for recourse.
Stacy Harbaugh, the Madison community advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, said a better understanding of the complaint process would lead to a ?more empowered group of citizens, which is good for democracy.?
?I think the most important thing for students and citizens to understand is their basic constitutional rights, especially when dealing with law enforcement,? Harbaugh said. ?It would be a benefit to everybody if the police had an open and transparent process.?
The department homepage of university police offers few answers to students with questions about complaints. There is no mention of the ability or how to complain. Some university police departments, such as the University of Minnesota police, clearly express those opportunities under ?community info.?
Besides online education, the Madison Police Department also allows people to submit complaints anonymously through an online form, said Lt. Kristen Roman of the Professional Standards and Internal Affairs Office. She considers that type of community input just as helpful as a written complaint.
?It?s still valuable that we?re hearing from the public,? Roman said. ?We try to make the process of complaining as open and accessible as possible.?
Kerl said the absence of information online may be due to a yearlong process of redesigning the department?s website to follow the university?s look more closely. He said there is no system to accept complaints online because it could be less efficient than the current process.
A complaint received by phone today may be discussed and resolved in a matter of minutes if the concern is simple, he said. Talking over the phone also allows officers to address any confusion of jurisdiction or procedure right away.
The only instructive material distributed by university police on campus mentioning complaints is a pamphlet given to people after traffic stops.
Burke acknowledged that the low number of formal complaints might be due to a lack of knowledge of the system, but he said angry people have never had any problem complaining.
?If they have a beef with this department, they would know how to pick up the phone and call,? he said.
Roman said she thinks the city, including the campus, is well-informed about the recourse actions if mistreated by an officer. ?People don?t seem to be shy when there?s a need,? she said.
Although the complaint process may be initiated by any form of contact, the written complaint forms must be picked up at UW Police Headquarters, 1429 Monroe St., or mailed by request. Burke said the department would sometimes mail a complaint form even if not requested if there appears enough reason.
?It?s never been difficult for anyone to get those [complaint forms],? Burke said.
Even so, he recognized that the department could improve their system for gathering public feedback.
Besides complaints, one of the other avenues for feedback comes from ?customer surveys,? 10-question pamphlets the department gives to people after one in every 10 incidents. Burke said the department mails stacks of surveys every month, but only a handful return, about 15 every three months.
The majority of surveys returned are positive, Burke said, but the pool might reflect an inaccurate picture of public attitude because the incidents include everything from conveyances ? a ride to the hospital ? to arrests. And the bulk of 18,000 incidents last year were nonviolent situations like conveyances.
Burke said 100 percent of negative surveys come from people who were either arrested or received a ticket. ?They?re not complaining about how they were treated,? he said. ?They were just mad because they got arrested.?
Although the survey forms are currently online ? printable from the ?Forms and Pamphlets? section ? Burke said he would like to see a system that generates a larger pool of public feedback. An online survey system could be one solution, he said.
Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell, who oversees university police from an administrative role, said there might be room for technical upgrades in the current complaint system. He?s not sure whether online complaints are the right idea, but it is a direction that could be discussed.
?I think those [ideas] are opportunities to strengthen our education,? Bazzell said. ?At the end of the day, we want a system that works.?
Bazzell said the small number of formal complaints raises some questions that haven?t been asked recently about UWPD?s complaint process. Like Burke, he said the low number could be an indicator of good service, but it?s ?something that we need to understand better.?
?The [number of] 13 complaints could be real positive, but we should go back and find out whether they reflect that sentiment,? Bazzell said.
Student complaints in the minority?
Although it?s hard to track, Kerl said most complaints filed against university police seem to come from non-students. He?s not certain why that?s the case, but he has a hunch it?s something to do with typical police-student interactions.
About 40 percent of citations handed out last year by UWPD were alcohol-related. Given those types of situations, Kerl thinks revelers understand it was their behavior ? not the officer?s ? that caused an incident.
Besides the rare complaint, Kerl said the department receives positive feedback every now and then from a student who was cited for an alcohol violation. Those comments are relayed to the officers involved, but the department does not keep track of the total number.
At the ACLU, Harbaugh said she?s never heard of a student from UW complaining about officer misconduct with university police. Her organization occasionally takes complaints from people who feel they have been wronged by other police departments? internal procedures. Those complaints occasionally filter in from the Madison area, but not from students, she said.
Roman said MPD hears complaints from students, but she added it?s hard to gauge how much of the population understands how to complain because her office only hears from the people who have figured it out.
UWPD deems 2 complaints founded
The University of Wisconsin Police Department concluded two complaints in the past two years filed against officers were justified, and in one case, the incident required formal discipline.
The department admitted guilt in each complaint, and regarding the more serious offense in 2006, the police officer mailed a written apology to the victim. The letter, dated Oct. 7, 2006, says the officer was assigned to investigate the theft of the victim?s purse.
?When I called you, I received your voice mail and left a message for you. After ending the call, I began to speak to a friend,? the officer writes. ?I was frustrated that I had received the voice mail, rather than you directly. I then voiced that frustration to my friend. Because the phone had not hung up, you had become witness to that conversation.?
The names of the officer and victim were blacked out from the department?s response letter obtained by The Badger Herald for privacy reasons, according to university police. The officer said his accidental comments were ?an anomaly and are not a reflection of how our agency, or I, conduct business.?
Complaint records obtained by the Herald did not include the phone recordings or the original complaint. A letter addressed to the complainant gave little information on what comments were expressed to the victim.
Lt. Ken Kerl, who manages complaints and human resources for University Police, said the officer?s language likely included curse words rather than something more explicit such as racial slurs.
Assistant Police Chief Dale Burke, who oversees the department?s operations, said the officer was formally disciplined for his or her actions. Formal discipline means the officer may receive a letter of reprimand or suspension without pay for a period of time.
The other complaint made in 2007 was less severe and required no formal discipline. The officer?s actions were, however, addressed informally.
According to a letter dated April 12, 2007, a person complained to university police that an officer investigating the theft of a checkbook was not pursuing the case in a timely manner. The officer had apparently made insufficient efforts to locate the thief, who was trying to cash false checks.
The department apologized for the officer?s handling of the case and directed the officer to keep the victim better informed of the case?s progress.
Police: Force necessary in resistance
Two months after leaving the hospital in 2005, one Madison reveler did something few people at the University of Wisconsin ever do ? he filed a formal complaint with the campus police department for excessive use of force.
The complainant ? whose name was blacked out from records obtained by The Badger Herald ? was approached Aug. 8, 2005 outside of Ogg Hall when an officer observed the complainant and several others acting suspiciously.
One police officer approached the group and asked for identification. A person had moved a bottle of whiskey from a table to the ground, according to the University of Wisconsin Police Department, and everyone appeared under the legal drinking age.
The complainant, after hearing the officer?s request, decided to make a run for it. A letter, dated Nov. 6, 2006, from university police to the complainant showed little regret for the following events: ?Your continuing attempts to flee and resist arrest led to the escalation in force by the officers involved.?
Running from police, the man collided with an officer who tried to restrain him. The complainant argued the officer, whom he did not see, ?tackled me and started swearing at me and punching me and grabbed my bad leg.? The department?s response letter said officers had no way of knowing the man had an untreated injured leg.
An observing officer warned the man to stop resisting arrest or else he would be stunned with a Taser. The man broke free, the officer deployed his Taser and the man fell into a wall.
The letter says, ?It is unfortunate that you then fell against a nearby wall, but you had a number of opportunities to comply with the officers? requests.?
The night was not over.
The man somehow regained his strength and continued to evade police. Another uniformed officer driving a marked police vehicle approached the man, the officer opened his car door and the man ? still running ? collided with it.
In his complaint, the man argued police slammed him against the vehicle and drew their firearms. The department?s investigation into the complaint said no officers showed their guns, but their Tasers were possibly still drawn.
?You did not put your hands up or otherwise comply until physically restrained,? the department?s letter says. ?Your actions raised both the potential that you or the officers could have been injured and also increased the emotional response to the incident.?
Finally detained, the man was taken to UWPD headquarters and placed in an interview room. He vomited several times and tested positive for alcohol. Police had the man taken to the hospital where he would later be joined by his parents.
The response letter from UWPD made one apology for the use of profanity during the arrest. Replying to the accusations of excessive force, the department writes, ?After reviewing the officers? reports that were prepared in connection with your arrest along with the video and audio segments from the UWPD building recording system, I find that the officers involved used an appropriate level of force for the situation.?
How to file a complaint:
The University of Wisconsin Police Department will accept informal complaints through any form of contact: phone, e-mail, in person or mail. If a timely resolution cannot be met ? sometimes all a person wants is an apology for misconduct ? you may file a formal complaint with the department within 90 days of the incident. The official form is unavailable online, but it may be obtained by contacting UWPD at 608-264-2677 or picked up in person at University Police Headquarters, 1429 Monroe St., or by mail if requested.
Citizen Complaints Filed with UWPD 2005-07
Date* Nature of Complaint Results
Sept. 14, 2005 Policy/Procedure Violation Unfounded
Oct. 11, 2005 Policy/Procedure Violation Unfounded
Oct. 25, 2005 Policy/Procedure Violation Unfounded
Aug. 17, 2006 Unprofessional Conduct Exonerated
Nov. 6, 2006 Excessive Use of Force Exonerated
Oct. 7, 2006 Unprofessional Conduct Founded
Nov. 17, 2006 Policy/Procedure Violation Unfounded
Nov. 6, 2006 Policy/Procedure Violation Exonerated
Jan. 16, 2007 Unprofessional Conduct Withdrawn
Feb. 12, 2007 Policy/Procedure Violation Unfounded
April 12, 2007 Policy/Procedure Violation Founded
Sept. 5, 2007 Unprofessional Conduct Inconclusive
Sept. 24, 2007 Unprofessional Conduct Inconclusive
*Date indicates when UWPD responded to a formal complainant by letter.
(1) Unfounded. Investigation reveals that the alleged action did not occur.
(2) Inconclusive. Investigation fails to uncover conclusive evidence in support or denial of the alleged action.
(3) Exonerated. Investigation reveals that the alleged action did occur and was within department policy and state law and was appropriate.
(4) Founded. Investigation reveals that the alleged action did occur and was not within department policy or state law or was inappropriate.