How to Report Police Abuse: The Dos and Don’ts For Documenting and Reporting

Police serve an important public safety function in our society. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of anecdotes about bad cops engaging in brutality or otherwise using excessive force, causing unnecessary injuries and deaths.

It’s a difficult problem to address. Police departments for cities, states, counties, and other jurisdictions in the U.S. operate largely independently, without any unified oversight body. The U.S. Department of Justice can gather statistics, investigate reports of bad behavior by cops, and take action. But the federal agency could not possibly handle every complaint about the roughly 18,000 police departments in the country, and it mostly focuses on extensive patterns of abuse rather than individual incidents.

When performing their official duties, the actions of cops (even if they cause serious harm) are often legally protected by the courts through a concept known as qualified immunity. Police unions also oppose reform efforts and attempt to sanction officers for misconduct.

Still, the situation is not as hopeless as it might at first appear. Excessive force by police during arrests, involuntary stops and seizures is prohibited under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. There are mechanisms in place to hold police accountable for violations.

Here is some advice for what to do if you witness police brutality, or are a victim of it, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. You can also talk to our firm with experience navigating police misconduct and brutality. We can offer general information on this page, but this does not constitute legal advice — for that, you would need to contact one of our attorneys.

First of All, What is Excessive Force?

In short, “excessive force” is when police use more force than is needed to subdue a person who is doing harm to others, threatening to do so, or may act violently toward other people or officers. Excessive force can happen during arrests, traffic stops, or any other time police encounter individuals they perceive to be dangerous.

Police have a lot of discretion for determining what they believe to be “dangerous,” and the distinctions for what qualifies as “excessive force” can be murky. But here are some clear examples:

  • Using force against a person who is cooperative, unarmed, and/or effectively restrained (such as being in handcuffs)
  • Shooting someone who is unarmed (and/or shooting someone without warning them first)
  • Using force on anyone who is not engaged in criminal activities

What Do You Do If You See It?

If you witness acts of police brutality and possible excessive force, one effective means of gathering valuable information is by photographing or filming the incident. The ease of using cell phones for these purposes, and distributing images and videos over social media, has effectively increased public awareness of bad behavior by cops and helped in efforts to hold them accountable.

You should make sure to stand at a safe distance, though, and refrain from interfering with the cops’ duties or trespassing on private property. Your First Amendment right to film or take photos of the police exists as long as you are impeding police activities or violating other laws.

Police officers may attempt to order you to stop taking photos or filming. Respond politely but firmly, but without physically resisting them, that your right to capture video or images is protected under the First Amendment. Do not try to hide the fact that you are filming or taking photos.

Cops may also try to take your camera and delete videos and photos, or arrest you for simply not complying with their orders to hand over your camera or phone or stop filming. These actions are illegal. Politely and firmly inform them that you do not consent to those activities.

Obviously, adrenaline can run high in situations where violence is occurring, and people’s lives and safety are at stake. It’s good to remember what details you should focus on capturing that will be especially helpful for making a report of the incident.

Those include:

  • Details about the time, location, and circumstances of the event
  • Officer badge and patrol car numbers
  • The name of the agency or department where they were from
  • Weapons that were used and whatever injuries the person subjected to brutality suffered

What to Do If You Experience Police Brutality

Horrifyingly, police brutality does happen to innocent people for no obvious reason. While it’s going on, there’s little that a victim can do besides trying to remain as calm as possible and be compliant.

You do not, however, have to tell the police any information besides your name (which is required in some states) or driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance during a traffic stop. You may invoke your right to remain silent and contact an attorney before providing any further information.

If you believe your rights are being violated, you should try to write down as many details as you can remember as soon as possible after the incident. Those would include the date, time and location of the incident, the circumstances, the department or agency involved, and any physical details you can remember about the officers.

If you are arrested, you should make sure to contact an attorney since police who engage in brutality have been known to bring criminal charges against victims as an intimidation tactic to prevent them from filing a lawsuit.

How to Report What Happened

  1. File a complaint: Once you have gathered appropriate facts and details, including information about the incident, officers involved, and any photo or video evidence you might have, you can start by filing an official misconduct complaint with the agency.

    Most police departments have citizen review boards or similar bodies to which you can file complaints. You can usually find contact information for this body by googling the name of the jurisdiction or agency and “police misconduct complaint,” or other similar keywords. Sometimes an official form is necessary, and you may have to retrieve it by visiting the office in person.

    For instance, New York City has a Civilian Complaint Review Board for handling these types of matters, which has both a hotline and an online form.

    One note of caution: If you have been arrested or are planning to file a lawsuit over your rights being violated, it may be best not to file a complaint right away. This may give the department details that will offer it leverage over you in legal disputes. Ask your attorney for advice about how and when to file a complaint.

  2. Check to see if your local prosecutor has a division for police misconduct cases. In New York City, both the Brooklyn District Attorney and Manhattan District Attorney have police accountability offices that handle cases of criminal misconduct by police officers. You can report information to these offices either for instances of brutality happening to you, or if you observed brutality happening to someone else.

  3. Contact a lawyer who is experienced in handling police brutality and misconduct cases, especially someone familiar with your jurisdiction. Every local police department has quirks in its policies and procedures, and its methods for dealing with complaints, and it’s good to have someone on your side who has navigated those issues before. Our firm has substantial experience in these areas in New York, for example.

    If you are a victim of police brutality, it’s possible your best first step will be taking aggressive legal action. But you should consult an experienced attorney for advice.

    If you witnessed the brutality, and are able to speak to the victim afterward, consider providing your name and contact information so they can follow up with you for additional information. This could be useful for helping them win a legal case or file an official report.