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How to File a Complaint Against a Police Officer in California

On Behalf of | Oct 25, 2023 | Civil Rights

Police misconduct is a severe allegation, and in recent years, more scrutiny has fallen on law enforcement and how they handle situations. Nobody wants to be the victim of police misconduct, but they must know how to handle the problem if they are.

Knowing what to do when you suspect that you’re the victim of police misconduct and how to properly file a complaint against an officer are two of the tools that citizens can use to fight back against abuses from the system.

What Constitutes Police Misconduct Worthy of a Complaint?

Police have several guidelines that California requires them to follow when interacting with the public. When law enforcement does not follow some of these guidelines, it can lead to police misconduct.

Since these guidelines are numerous and sometimes confusing, it is useful to list some of the common ways that police abuse their power. To know if you are the victim of police misconduct, speak with an attorney and explain your situation. 

  • Discrimination: Police are not allowed to discriminate or assume anything about a suspect based on personal characteristics like race, gender, or sexual orientation.
  • Harassment: Whether verbal or physical, harassment can constitute threats or just causing someone to feel uncomfortable with the situation.
  • Excessive Force: A topic of great discussion after George Floyd, police are not allowed to use excessive force when handling a suspect. Police may only do what is necessary to detain an individual when placing them under arrest.
  • Violating Due Process: Due process covers plenty of scenarios, and officers must follow the guidelines at all times. You can file a complaint against an officer for an illegal search and seizure, arresting you without any pretense, lack of probable cause for a traffic stop, or failing to read your Miranda rights.
  • Perjury: Officers, like anyone on the witness stand or making an official statement to the court, must always be truthful under oath. If you can prove that an officer perjured themselves or tampered with evidence, you have the grounds for a complaint.

What to Do While Dealing With Police Misconduct

Suppose you are at a traffic stop and notice an officer going off book and veering into something that you believe is police misconduct. You need to keep a cool head and use this opportunity to gather evidence.

Ideally, you will gather evidence through an audio or video recording of the incident, though that’s not always possible in the situation. Witness reports can help you if someone is nearby watching the scene unfold.

At the very least, you’ll need to gather a few pieces of data and write them down as soon as you can. You should note the officer’s name, badge number, and any car numbers. Jot down what you remember about the officer’s appearance to make sure that you can correctly identify them later. You should also register where you were when the incident happened and any descriptions of the location.

Any evidence that you gather can help you or your attorney showcase potential wrongdoing or misconduct. If you just leave it to your word against the officer’s, you will have difficulties proving misconduct.

Where Do You File a Complaint Against Police?

You can file complaints in person to the department where the officer works, the police commission, the Inspector General’s Office, or an Internal Affairs office. Police departments often prefer an in-person filing so they can speak to you about the incident and get any additional information that you may have forgotten to mention in a report.

If you don’t want to make an in-person visit to the station, you can find the complaint form on the police station’s website or from the city council of your municipality. You can also contact their hotline to make a complaint. These methods allow you to maintain anonymity or report on an incident that you witnessed.

If you’re unsure what to do or who to talk to, speaking with an attorney is a good first step. They can guide you on how to act and who to speak to when beginning a complaint.


Q: Who Investigates Police Misconduct in California?

A: In California, each law enforcement agency has to create a procedure for investigating complaints. They handle each matter internally. If you believe that the agency ignores your complaint or is not proceeding with it fast enough, you can reach out to the county district attorney where the law enforcement agency is. You may also bring the case to the Attorney General in instances where you haven’t heard any response from law enforcement or the district attorney.

Q: Can You Sue a Police Officer Personally in California?

A: A ruling from the California Supreme Court in June of 2023 determined that police are not immune from misconduct claims. Suing a specific officer often ends up playing out similarly to suing the department or the city. A lawyer can explain the right way to proceed with a claim for misconduct in California.

Q: What Is the Most Common Type of Police Misconduct?

A: The United States Department of Justice reports that the most common investigation for police misconduct comes from excessive force complaints. Others report that it is nearly 1/4 of all accusations against officers. Sexual misconduct, theft, and false arrest are the other most common types of police misconduct. If you believe that you’re the victim of any of these violations, you should file a complaint and speak to a lawyer about a civil claim.

Q: What Are the Consequences of Police Misconduct and Unethical Behavior?

A: In cases of misconduct, the offending officer may have a suspension from duty, suffer a demotion, or receive orders to transfer to a new office. In cases of extreme misconduct, the state may revoke the officer’s ability to work for law enforcement and fire them. An offending officer’s precinct may also face civil action for unethical behavior.

Exum Law Offices: Experienced Representation Against Police Misconduct

At Exum Law Offices, we have experience dealing with criminal defense and police misconduct. If you’re trying to navigate filing a complaint against the police for misconduct, we can help. Contact us today to discuss what we can do to help.