Making a formal complaint about a NSW Police Officer
Some useful information about police complaints
- What is the difference between a formal and informal police complaint?
- What kind of behaviour can I make a formal complaint about?
- What should I include in my complaint?
- Who can I lodge the complaint with?
- Is it safe to make a complaint?
- What can I expect?
- Evidence / Documents to Keep
- What about the NSW Ombudsman and the Police Integrity Commission?
- Relevant laws and policies
If you think the police have violated your rights, or treated you badly, consider talking with a lawyer about your options: see “Where to get legal advice”
This information is not legal advice, and should not be used to replace advice about a specific situation from a lawyer.
CLCNSW has a number of concerns in relation to the police complaints system in NSW – to learn more, see: What’s wrong with the current system – brief overview and Why reform is needed
However, the following information may be useful in helping you decide whether, and how, to make a complaint.
Complaints in person or over the phone can be a constructive way of resolving issues with police officers, particularly regarding minor disputes where there is an obvious misunderstanding, or if you are in regular contact with the officer involved. If you do not want to speak to the officer involved, you could ask to speak to the supervising officer (often called the duty officer of the police station). But complaints in person or over the phone are not formal complaints – they will generally be dealt with informally.
A written complaint triggers certain obligations and procedures that the NSW Police Force has to follow. A written complaint also means that there is proof that the complaint has been made, and it cannot be ignored.
If you want to make a complaint in writing, but need help, contact a Community Legal Centre for assistance in writing it down. You could also ask the NSW Ombudsman's Office for assistance.
A police complaint is not a criminal investigation. Mostly, police complaints are about notifying the Commissioner of Police that one of their officers is failing to comply with appropriate professional standards. However serious complaints can lead to criminal charges against police officers if there is sufficient evidence.
A formal complaint is also different to a legal claim for compensation (or “suing the police”).
In some situations, there are alternatives to making a police complaint, such as suing the police, or making a discrimination claim through the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal. For more information about alternatives, see our other pages (index)
The information below refers to formal complaints made about NSW Police officers only (not Australian Federal Police, or police from other states).
A police complaint can be about many aspects of police work. Generally speaking, a police complaint alleges or indicates that a police officer has done one or more of the following:
- Committed a criminal offence,
- Acted corruptly (e.g. bribery, blackmail, or planting evidence),
- Engaged in conduct which is “unlawful” (although not an offence, something the police officer does not have the legal power to do),
- conduct that, although not unlawful:
- is unreasonable, unjust, oppressive or improperly discriminatory in its effect, or
- arises from improper motives, or
- has taken irrelevant matters into consideration, or
- arises from a mistake of law or fact, or
- for which reasons should have (but have not) been given
According to the NSW Police Annual Report, 5516 complaints were received by NSW Police in 2010-11, containing 9064 separate issues or allegations. The majority of police complaints are not about corruption. Instead, they are about police not doing their job properly, in one way or another.
A formal complaint should specify:
- that it is a complaint made under Part 8A of the Police Act 1990 (NSW)
- that you want the matter to be investigated
- what sources of evidence are available to the investigator
- whether you want to be contacted
- the effect that the police officer’s actions have had on you
- what disciplinary action you would like taken
There is an online template on the NSW Police Force website (see ‘lodge your complaint online’), for making complaints, however, we suggest you get some legal advice before making the complaint.
Complaints about the behaviour of NSW Police Force officers can be made to the following people:
- Any NSW Police Force officer;
- The Police Integrity Commission;
- The NSW Ombudsman;
- The Independent Commission Against Corruption;
- The NSW Crime Commission; and
- Any Member of the Parliament of NSW.
But, keep in mind that the vast majority of complaints are referred back to the NSW Police Force itself, regardless of the agency to which they were originally made. Most complaints go back to the same Local Area Command where the officer (that the complaint is about) works. The complaint will be managed by another officer, or by a complaint management team, in the Local Area Command.
Before lodging a complaint, consider seeking legal advice about the best agency to submit your complaint to.
As mentioned above, almost all complaints are sent to the Local Area Command where the police officer works, for management of the complaint. You may need to weigh up many factors in deciding whether to complain: the injustice that happened to you, your desire for the situation to change, whether complaining would improve or worsen your ongoing relationship with police in your local area etc.
Generally, the police officer who has been complained about should not be told the name of the person who has lodged a complaint. Of course, in some circumstances, the police officer may know who was there, and be able to guess who made a complaint.
Police officers should behave professionally, even if a complaint has been made against them or one of their colleagues, and no doubt many do. Unfortunately, some clients of community legal centres have reported that police will no longer assist them (e.g. in relation to matters where they need police help) after they have made a complaint. Other people feel that they are singled out, or charged unfairly with minor offences, after they have made a complaint.
If you feel you are being unfairly treated as a result of making a complaint, you may want to make an additional complaint, possibly to a different organisation. You should seek legal advice about your options – see Where to get legal advice.
NSW police sometimes send a senior officer to a person’s home to ‘discuss’ the complaint. If you would find this intimidating and don’t want a police officer to visit your home, then in your complaint letter you can try requesting that police officers do not visit you about the complaint. You can suggest that they call, or write to you, to make an appointment, and suggest a place where you would be comfortable having a meeting.
If you don’t want to deal with the police directly, you might feel safer with a community worker, or lawyer, assisting you with the complaint, and being the point of contact with the police. You can also make an anonymous complaint, but bear in mind that this limits the investigation that the complaint-handler can do, as they will not be able to contact you for more details.
Do not be tempted to make up an incident: it is an offence to make a knowingly false complaint, or to provide knowingly false or misleading information in the course of the investigation of a complaint.
Do not expect to go to court.
As mentioned above it is likely that the complaint will be dealt with by another police officer from the Local Area Command where the incident occurred.
In considering your complaint, you can expect that the investigating officer will:
- examine the issues in your letter of complaint
- check evidence held by the Police Force (eg. CCTV, charge records, notebooks, rosters, transcripts)
- speak to you
Police (and the Ombudsman) are allowed to decline to investigate a complaint for a variety of reasons, including where they believe:
- you are not sufficiently involved in the events complained of
- the events occurred “too long ago” (which is a very vague time frame)
- the complaint is trivial
- action is already being taken by the Police Force to address the issue
- there is another “means of redress” available
- if there are criminal charges against you in connection with the same incident or time-frame as your complaint about police, the Police Force and the Ombudsman will say that you can raise the police behaviour in court, when you are defending the criminal charges. This is considered another “means of redress”. Unfortunately, this may not be realistic, and you should get legal advice.
Most complaints are expected to be resolved within 45 days. Complaints with evidence-based investigations have guidelines suggesting finalisation within 90 days. These guidelines are often not met.
Do not be surprised if you receive very little information from the Police Force about how they investigated your complaint, or what they found. Often they send a very short letter, just saying that that your complaint was “sustained” (they agreed with you that that the police officer did something wrong), or “not sustained” (they do not agree with you). You may also receive a phone call about the outcome.
Legal advice can be very helpful in understanding what type of outcome you might expect for your particular complaint. It is important to realise that if your complaint is not handled properly by NSW Police, then this can be the basis for a more serious complaint and may be more suitable to be sent directly to the NSW Ombudsman.
We have attached a case study from a community legal centre that assisted a client with a police complaint. Each experience will be different, but this may give you some idea of what to expect.
Evidence to back up a police complaint could include police documents, witness statements, medical records, photographs, CCTV recordings etc.
The most useful documents are those that indicate the names of the officers involved, and the decisions they made. Police complaints are less easily investigated where officers are not identified, or where there is no ‘paper trail’. Aside from helping you to accurately refer to police records keeping these documents will allow your lawyer to provide more informed advice about your complaint.
If your complaint is related to you as a victim of or witness to crime, you should keep:
- any contact card given to you by the investigating officer/s (this may include an Event Number)
- Any written statements you made
- Copies of any AVOs or Bail Undertakings naming you as a Protected Person.
If your complaint is about something that occurred when you were a suspect or accused person, you should keep:
- your Court Attendance Notice
- the Police Facts Sheet
- from the Police Station:
- your Custody Management Record
- the Property Docket
- the Reasons for Bail Decision by Authorised Officer
- your Bail Undertaking
- a copy of the Brief of Evidence (if you have pleaded not guilty)
Discuss with your lawyer, whether to include these documents with your complaint. If you have lost any of these documents, or were never given them, talk to a lawyer about how to apply for the documents.
If you make a complaint, keep a copy for your own records.
The NSW Ombudsman is an independent and impartial body that watches over government agencies, to make sure they do their job properly. The Police Act 1990, gives the Ombudsman certain powers and duties in relation to complaints about NSW Police officers.
As mentioned above, most complaints sent directly to the NSW Ombudsman will be referred back to the Local Area Command where the complained-of officer was stationed at the time of the events.
The Ombudsman does have the power, but not the resources, to directly investigate complaints about police. In 2010-11 the NSW Ombudsman only finalised 5 direct investigations of alleged police misconduct.
For most complaints about police, the NSW Ombudsman provides oversight, rather than directly investigating the incident that the complaint is about. This means that the Ombudsman can access, and review, the details of the complaint and how the police dealt with it. The Ombudsman may provide feedback, or directions, to NSW Police, if they think something was missed, or could be improved.
If you are certain that your matter cannot be properly investigated by the NSW Police Force, set out your reasons in detail, about why you think the NSW Ombudsman should do the investigation.
If the NSW Police Force has dealt with your complaint, and you are unhappy about how it was handled, you can write to the Ombudsman explaining why you think it was not properly handled or investigated. The Ombudsman may review how the police dealt with your complaint, and make recommendations to NSW Police if they think something could be improved or fixed in relation to your complaint. For example, this can be useful if you believe the Police Force did not look at all of the available evidence (e.g. they did not contact a witness you suggested), or if you didn’t receive any (or enough) information from the police about the outcome of your complaint. Unfortunately, by the time the Ombudsman looks at your request, it will be a long time after the incident, and it may be too late to change the situation, or too late to collect evidence.
The Police Integrity Commission (PIC) is primarily concerned with corrupt or criminal conduct by NSW Police Force employees. Most unprofessional police work does not fall under this heading, and the PIC is likely to refer your complaint to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman may then refer your complaint to the Local Area Command involved to consider investigation.
Complaints to the Independent Commission Against Corruption are usually referred out in the same way as complaints to PIC.
Relevant legislation can be found via NSW Legislation:
- Police Act 1990 (particularly Part 8A)
- Police Regulations 2008
- Ombudsman Act 1974
- Police Integrity Commission Act 1996
Some NSW Police Force Policies, can be found on their website, for example:
- Complaint Handling Guidelines
- Code of Practice for the NSW Police Force Response to Domestic and Family Violence
- Youth Policy
- NSW Police Force Code of Conduct and Ethics
The NSW Police Electronic Control (TASER) Devices guidelines are available here.