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12.6.07

Just File A Complaint

The latest coverage of the troubled relationship between Casa Grande's police and black community opens with a bit of bureaucratic blindness:

The board is hampered in its progress because most of the complaints - some presented calmly, others to the point of screaming - have not been filed with the Police Department and then investigated, giving both sides of the picture.

As board member Jim Rhodes told those attending the May 10 meeting at Len Colla Recreation Center, "It looks like we have an issue, a problem, from the eloquent statements that have been made, but it looks like there's a breakdown in getting those in writing so they can be considered.

"One of the problems that we run into is that you've all done a great job of talking tonight, but when we leave I don't have your words to take with me to look at."

Some of those speaking to the board that night were asked if they had filed complaints against officers. Their reasons for not doing so ranged from not knowing the process to not knowing how to put it down on paper to "this happened in December, but I have still not filed a complaint out of fear of retaliation from the department; I don't trust the Police Department, that's why I'm here tonight."


This is a common refrain any time an agency encounters an unhappy public. Bureaucratic organizations all have formal procedures for registering complaints. So what's the problem with using them? Essentially, that complaint procedures are set up for the convenience of the bureaucracy. They serve to transform issues in the outside world into a form that can be processed internally in a way that does not threaten the agency's organization.

For example, the written complaint process deals with discrete incidents. Complaints take the form "on X day at Y place, Z member of the agency did such-and-such." The agency can then collect evidence about the given incident and see if it's clear that Z did something substantially contrary to some relevant guideline. Then the file can be stamped "closed."

But the concerns people have do not always take a form that can be easily reduced to complaints about discrete incidents -- and even when they can be, such translation empties the concerns of much of the force they have when experienced and understood as part of a larger pattern. Questions of distrust and disrespect can't be broken down into policy violations, and so bureaucratic organizations tend to be blind to them.

Police Chief Bob Huddleston doesn't seem to grasp the problem. We first encounter him in the article telling a woman concerned about DNA testing of suspects that proper procedures have been followed and that supporting documentation can be produced upon proper request. Later he lists the formal appeals steps that a questioner could take if they disagree with the police's violent arrest of a man charged with posession of narcotics.

In an accompanying article, members of the Police Advisory Board (which is presumably much less bureaucratically structured than the police department) take a much more productive stance. Rather than Huddleston's attitude of "come meet us on our turf and speak our language," the board members seem to recognize the need to take the black community's concerns seriously on their own terms, and to proactively seek resolution of them rather than waiting for them to be translated into bureaucracy-appropriate forms.

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