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Filing A Bystander Complaint Shouldn’t Be This Hard

Four blue "Police Line" barricades
flickr/Nikita Gavrilovs

My problem wasn’t just with these police. It was with an entire system of policing that is failing to protect and serve those it claims to.

At 2 a.m. on Sunday July 7, 2018, I awoke out of a dead sleep to the sound of a woman screaming for help at the top of her lungs. I don’t know how many times she screamed the word “help” or exactly how long it took me to come out of sleep, figure out that it wasn’t a dream, and realize that a woman really was screaming and I was hearing it.

It took another second of paralysis for that to sink in before my partner in bed next to me said, “did you hear that?”

“Someone’s screaming for help.”

It took several agonizing seconds for us to get our pajamas on. I ran outside while my partner fumbled with his shoes, but the screaming had stopped. I stood still, trying to listen, and realized with horror that I might be too late. A commotion finally came from an apartment three down from mine. That should give you an idea of how loud the woman was screaming. A man came out of the apartment and into the parking lot, followed by a very angry, but very alive, woman.

That was when my partner decided to call the police—a decision he now regrets, though he wasn’t the only one to call.

The two of us stood huddled in our jammies, watching the couple fight to make sure no one was hurt. It’s hard to say how long it took for the police to arrive—probably five to ten minutes. I didn’t hear any sirens, only the sound of cars approaching and doors slamming shut out of sight. Three officers then walked around the side of the apartment building and slowly approached the couple.

At the sight of the police, the woman turned around and started storming toward her apartment. The officers shouted at her to stop, placing their hands on their holstered firearms. They didn’t draw their weapons, but my mind flashed back to all of the video footage I’ve unfortunately watched of police shooting and killing unarmed suspects. My only comfort came from the fact that the couple was white, so they stood a much better chance of surviving.

The officers separated the couple and spent about five minutes interviewing them. After that, an officer walked over to the woman and handcuffed her. They informed her that she was under arrest. Stunned, I listened to the woman start to sob, and then a bit of hell began breaking loose.

People were angry. One neighbor, who had been watching through the window, started yelling at the police. “What are you doing?” he shouted repeatedly, “She screams for help, and then you come and arrest her?”

Another man approached from a different apartment building, having heard the commotion and also demanding an explanation. My partner yelled at the woman to stay quiet and get a lawyer. Meanwhile, my mind was racing. The woman was being led off by the one female officer, away from her apartment, in only her nightie. Stories about women being sexually assaulted by police and prison guards shot through my head. I started following her, terrified, but feeling that I couldn’t just do nothing.

My partner, being afraid of cops (as so many of us are), started yelling at me to come back. He regrets doing so. I regret listening to him. We both regret the entire night.

My partner yelled at the woman to stay quiet and get a lawyer. Meanwhile, my mind was racing. Click To Tweet

The detained woman had been led out of sight, back to the police vehicles. The two remaining officers were looking on edge, trying to respond to the few members of the community who had come out to voice their displeasure. I remember the female officer coming back to me and my partner, who was upset to the point of going into “say every word that comes into his head” mode. All I could do was ask the officer in a shaking voice, now crying, if the arrested woman was given anything to wear. It took two tries to get an answer to my question.

“She’ll be given something.”

Translation: No.

The officers started telling everyone to go inside. We refused at first, still afraid that the cops might do something violent to our neighbors. Eventually, it became clear that there would only be talking, and I went back into my apartment.

I had work the next day, but I couldn’t sleep. I felt both helpless and useless, my mind going over all the things I could have said or done to intervene. Instead of sleeping, I found a place online where I could submit a complaint about the local police. I wrote that the officers on the scene acted aggressively by putting their hands on their guns and telling bystanders to go inside, that they made an arrest in very little time without the aid of a domestic violence advocate, and that they hauled off a woman in a nightie without allowing her to put on some reasonable clothes.

Later that morning, in the light of day, I surprisingly got a call from an officer, who attempted to explain away some of my complaints. When I expressed that this was not good enough, he asked me if I wanted to come down to the station to file a complaint, which I thought I had already done.

My partner and I decided to go together, mostly because I was too scared to go alone. We’re both white, so we didn’t expect to be brutalized, but we were still afraid—of authority figures, of guns, and of the amount of police misconduct that goes on in this country.

Sergeant Collins was friendly and took the time to read through the police reports and the complaint I had made. I was a little confused as to why we were even there. I had expected to pick up an official complaint form to fill out either there or at home. Then he started talking.

He spent about the next half hour “explaining” why the police acted as they did. It felt as though he was attempting to talk me out of making a complaint. Then he admitted that it was “very unusual” for bystanders to an arrest to file a complaint against police. This surprised me. Were people not doing this? Were the bystanders who have personally witnessed all the nearly daily incidents of deadly police brutality not filing complaints against the offending officers?

Information on how many complaints are filed against police in any given area, whether by arrestees or by bystanders, is hard to come by. And where it does exist, it often seems fishy.

In Seattle, criticisms about how the police handle complaints go back decades. A news release by the Washington State ACLU from 2009 called for an Independent Office for Police Accountability due to the fact that people who file complaints against the SPD have been “ignored, dissatisfied, and even threatened with libel suits.” In the nearby suburb of Bothell, where I live, complaints are handled internally. The vast majority of complaints against the police that are handled by said police are thrown out, so that doesn’t inspire much confidence.

He admitted that it was very unusual for bystanders to an arrest to file a complaint against police. This surprised me. Were people not doing this? Click To Tweet

When it was found that the LAPD went through 1,356 allegations of biased policing without upholding a single one, the Police Commission president finally decided that they needed to look at how they handled investigations into these complaints.It seems utterly impossible that there were no incidents of “biased policing,” aka racial profiling, seeing as black Californians account for 17 percent of all arrests in the state while making up only six percent of the population. But according to the president and cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, racial profiling by police is “excruciatingly difficult” to prove.

The LAPD’s Biased Policing and Mediation reports include a description of the department’s adjudication process. It starts with the accused cop’s commanding officer, then goes through undefined “multiple levels of review” as the matter is investigated. There are multiple steps where higher authorities can “disagree” with the decision of the lower, ending at the Chief of Police. If that happens, it goes to whatever “officer director” applies in the specific situation.

What I can gather from all this as an average citizen without a criminal justice or law degree is that there are many ways to throw a complaint out and only one narrow path to sustaining the complaint—which brings the accused to a Board of Rights tribunal whose decision can be overturned by a court of law.

There is no standardization on how a police department should handle its complaint procedures. In New Jersey, for example, they just don’t bother to investigate 99 percent of brutality complaints. In Tacoma, Washington, not far from where I live, only 10 percent of complaints against police were sustained during a 12-month period investigated by Reuters. In Chicago, a recent and exhaustive report found 125,000 complaints against 25,000 officers from 1967 to 2014. Only 660 led to firings. Seven officers racked up over 100 complaints each over their careers, and were able to get away with this clear pattern of misconduct because this was the first report in the history of the department that made it possible to “to identify officers with a long history of complaints.”

How can you eliminate problem officers from a police department if you can’t even identify them?

Following the Chicago Tribune’s report, the U.S. Justice Department found “a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution” within the Chicago Police Department. It also found evidence of racial bias in the use of force, and that these problems are “largely attributable to deficiencies in its accountability systems and in how it investigates uses of force.”

How can you eliminate problem officers from a police department if you can’t even identify them? Click To Tweet

In a recent video by Truth Be Told, DeRay Mckesson pointed to police unions as the source of these problems. These unions have worked tirelessly for the past 40 years to codify protections for officers into department policy, union contracts, and even local and state law. Police officers often get a “cooling off” period in which they cannot be questioned by investigators after a complaint is made. Most get their disciplinary records erased after a set period of time. Others get special information about the case, including the identities of the individuals who made the complaint.

The last thing I would want a rogue cop to know is that I filed a complaint against them. If citizens aren’t filing complaints against police, maybe it’s because they think that it’s pointless at best and dangerous at worst.

It dawned on me that Sergeant Collins did not understand why I was there. He was probably hoping I would either withdraw my complaint or accept his explanation and go away.

Realizing this, I just wanted to get out of there, but I had no idea how to end the interaction. Then, as Sergeant Collins and my boyfriend were discussing why cops had to go for their deadly weapons any time anybody did something they didn’t like, the officer demonstrated the action by grabbing at his holstered firearm himself.

My partner couldn’t handle it. His fear of guns is worse than mine. We both left in tears. I held back long enough for Sergeant Collins to get me an official complaint form, and before I could leave, he again tried to “explain” what the cops had done. I finally managed to tell him that it wasn’t just about these individual cops and whether they had followed protocol.

My problem was with the protocol. It was about an entire system of policing that is failing to protect and serve those it claims to.

I complained because I have legitimate concerns. I don’t understand why cops have to grab at their guns all the time, and why they don’t understand (or don’t care) that doing so is literally a death threat. I don’t understand why they had to threaten to kill a tiny woman in a nightie. Being told that the cops were afraid of weapons in the apartment doesn’t alleviate my concerns that she could have been sexually assaulted or make me feel any better about the complete lack of dignity with which they treated her.

I know that women can be domestic abusers, and I don’t know thing one about that couple. But I don’t understand how you decide who to charge within five minutes of talking without the aid of a domestic violence advocate. What I do know is how often women are arrested and imprisoned for lashing out in self defense. What I do know, and can’t ever forget, is the sound of that woman screaming for help as loud as her lungs would allow her.

I finally managed to tell him that it wasn’t just about these individual cops and whether they had followed protocol. My problem was with the protocol. Click To Tweet

These are some of the things I said in an impassioned email I sent to my mayor, the Bothell Chief of Police, and the Bothell City Council after my meeting with Sergeant Collins. Again, to my surprise, I got a reply, this time from Mayor Andy Rheaume himself. To my disappointment, it was more of the same—an attempt to explain away the things I had complained about, ignoring the systemic roots of the issue. I wrote back, begging him not to brush me off.

I haven’t heard from him since.

I don’t know what came of the charges against the woman. I haven’t seen her or her partner since that night. I do know that she was booked at the King County Jail in Seattle on Sunday and set free on conditional release Monday afternoon. I hope she’s okay, and I hope her and the guy she was seeing stay away from each other.

What I did make sure to find out was whether my complaint had been filed into official record—and it has. I received an email from Captain Ken Seuberlich of the Bothell police, and he spoke on the phone with my partner. That conversation seemed to go well, and the Captain wanted to speak with me on the phone as well. But when we spoke, it was more of the same excuses.

This was a mild experience compared to so many of the violent and disturbing incidents of police misconduct that go on in the U.S. I feel traumatized from what I witnessed, and I didn’t see anyone hurt, beaten, sexually assaulted, or killed. But I know that happens daily, and that’s why I complained—because I could see the roots of the problem at work even here. Cops treating civilians in their pajamas like threats. Cops trying to talk bystanders out of making complaints. Cops refusing to look past the surface of the problem. Cops seemingly ignorant of the fact that many civilians are terrified of them.

Maybe some of my complaints were unwarranted, but I’m still glad I made them. And I’m glad I had the fortitude and the protection of my privilege to follow through and refuse to withdraw my complaint or let it go. Nothing will change if we’re not willing to constantly demand change at the core of the policing system that kills so many and is designed to allow killer cops to get away with murder. We’re facing a group of people who have given themselves special privileges, and are defended by the legal system every step of the way.

The police are supposed to protect their communities, not terrorize them. I’m not letting this go until I see real change.