When the public complains about a bad cop, no one disputes that the officer should be punished. But what about when a good cop is falsely accused of misconduct? How far should officers go to clear their names? The question arose last week in connection with the case of a Los Angeles police sergeant who sued a Woodland Hills woman who had filed a complaint against her.
An internal review board found that Sgt. Jeri Weinstein of the West Valley Division had done nothing wrong. Still, she took the woman who filed the complaint to Small Claims Court, saying that even complaints on which she was cleared could stay in her personnel file and hurt her chances of advancement. She won. The woman appealed, but the case was settled for $3,000 before it reached trial in Superior Court.
Weinstein, a career cop with nearly 13 years of experience, was not the first police officer to sue a resident over a complaint, but she was one of just a few. LAPD officials recognize that it is a tricky situation--a balancing act between the rights of officers and the need for the public to feel comfortable pointing out bad cops.
Already, state law makes it a misdemeanor to falsely accuse a police officer. The law may discourage some complaints, but no solid statistics are available on prosecutions or on its deterrent effect. What's certain is that some criminals file false complaints in the hope that it may help their case by casting doubt on the officer's credibility. Law enforcement gadflies also are frequent filers, usually complaining that officers refuse to arrest neighbors for imagined crimes.
A good cop's most valuable asset is integrity. When that's attacked, officers should be able to protect it. LAPD officials are correct that it is a delicate balance, however. Although much has been done in the five years since the Christopher Commission faulted the department for not holding officers accountable, much work remains. The department is still criticized for making it tough to file complaints against officers. Police say the criticism is unwarranted. Once complaints are filed, they should be investigated thoroughly because such a process is an integral part of the public's responsibility to police its law enforcement officers.
But just as officers must be accountable for their actions, those who file false complaints should be held to answer for theirs. We certainly don't encourage police officers to file a lawsuit every time a citizen complains. Often, an honest misunderstanding may be at the heart of the complaint. Litigation in those cases is counter-productive and destructive to the relationship between police and the public. Imagine the chilling effect if officers sued every ticketed motorist who accused them of rudeness.
Considered another way, the right of police officers to sue those who accuse them falsely is a lot like cops carrying a gun. In almost all cases, the gun should be kept holstered in reserve for those rare instances when it's truly needed. The same goes for the power to sue.