Police investigations are critical to the criminal justice system. Information gained from investigations provides the evidence needed for arrests, prosecutions, and convictions. Without properly conducted investigations, guilty criminals may go free and commit more crimes.
A victim or witness who reports a crime may be rightfully frustrated if police choose not to investigate the matter or make mistakes during an investigation. In such instances, remedies can be few and far between. Most police duties are discretionary, which leaves victims or witnesses with limited options—but some exist. Below we review what types of recourse may be available, from filing complaints to filing lawsuits.
Many police officers perform their duties honorably and reliably. But some bad apples exist, and sometimes, police investigations are limited by what resources they have.
Police have a duty to serve and protect. But they don't necessarily have a duty to investigate every reported matter using every resource available. The extent to which a crime is investigated, or if it's investigated, depends on many factors outside a victim or witness's control.
Some reported wrongdoings are not criminal matters—they might be civil matters (such as a property line dispute). Other reported crimes might not have enough reliable information to go on. Department policies may also dictate the available resources and priority given to crime reports. Ultimately, investigative matters fall under police officers' and departments' many discretionary duties.
If police conduct an investigation, they must follow strict protocols or risk having evidence tossed out of court. Failure to properly secure a crime scene, collect evidence, and maintain chain of custody comprises the integrity (reliability) of the evidence. This evidence won't likely make it into court, and neither will evidence gained through an unlawful search or without appropriate Miranda warnings.
A prosecutor won't be able to build a case if the evidence is compromised or can't be used in court. If they try, the defense can ask the court to suppress (exclude) the evidence. Court rules requiring the exclusion of unreliable evidence or evidence gained through constitutional violations are the main remedies for these police failures. Of course, these remedies do nothing for victims and witnesses.
When it comes to most criminal investigations, police officers owe a duty to the public at large, not to any particular individuals. Victims are not guaranteed any type of criminal investigation will occur when they report a crime or suspicious behavior. If police do investigate, they still have no duty to follow up on every lead or expend every resource in a criminal investigation. Because no duty of care is owed to a particular victim, victims generally don't have any legal recourse in court, even when police were negligent in their investigation or in failing to investigate (absent extraordinary circumstances discussed below). The quickest recourse, therefore, is to complain.
An aggrieved victim or witness who believes police engaged in misconduct or were negligent in their investigation may file a complaint with one or more of the following:
A victim could also file a complaint with the local or state governing body that oversees and funds the law enforcement agency. For instance, a person could raise issues relating to a police department with the city council. When dealing with a sheriff's department, the governing body may be a county board.
The available remedies will usually depend on the authority granted to these agencies or departments. It's possible a complaint could start the wheels of justice and push the police to conduct or reopen an investigation. The complaint might also lead to an investigation of the police officer's conduct or department policies and procedures.
Police discipline. If an oversight board or agency determines an officer was negligent or engaged in misconduct or unethical behavior, it might issue one or more of the following disciplinary actions:
Criminal actions. In egregious cases, an officer could be charged with a criminal offense, such as misconduct of a public officer, harassment, illegally concealing or tampering with evidence, or making threats.
Corrective actions against a department. Actions that might be taken against a department include new policy directives, change of leadership, oversight by another agency, loss of funding, or audits of the department or its units.
Most law enforcement agencies have online forms available for filing complaints. Call the agency involved or check the website to find the internal affairs division or a complaint form.
Depending on how the state or local government operates, you might be able to find a "citizens review board" or "police oversight or disciplinary board." Run an internet search on those terms, along with the name of your state, or check with the police licensing board (often called POST for Police Officer Standards and Training) or the attorney general's office.
Other places to search include a state human rights department and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Bringing civil lawsuits against a police officer or department can be challenging. Most states and the federal government provide immunity that shields officers and departments from legal challenges and liability for their discretionary actions. As discussed above, investigations are discretionary matters. But there are exceptions.
Many state laws have mandatory reporter laws that require police, therapists, educators, doctors, and others to report suspected child abuse. While many laws shield mandatory reporters from liability for making reports and being wrong, failure to report can actually result in criminal or civil sanctions.
States may also impose a duty on police and protective services to investigate suspected child abuse. Because this duty extends to a particular class of persons, an aggrieved individual may be able to sue police for negligence in an investigation.
If an officer's failure to investigate a crime takes the form of discrimination, a person may have a civil rights action against the officer or the department. For instance, if police routinely fail to investigate domestic violence reports made by Black women, a victim might be able to prove this inaction amounts to racial and gender discrimination—a violation of equal protection under the law. Another example would be the failure of police to investigate suspected murders of missing Indigenous women.
In these types of cases, a person could file a federal or state civil rights action. These lawsuits can be difficult to win but monetary damages are possible if successful. In cases where a police agency, as a whole, engages in discriminatory investigative practice, the attorney general can sue the agency and ask the court to order the agency to change its practices (usually through a plan overseen by a court and the Justice Department).
Police may also be subject to criminal prosecution and penalties for depriving a person of their constitutional rights.
(18 U.S.C. §§ 241, 242; 34 U.S.C. § 12601; 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2023).)
If you're wondering what options are available in a particular case, you might want to speak to a lawyer. A lawyer can tell you if a civil lawsuit or other remedy may be possible. Another option is talking to or hiring a private investigator. A lawyer or investigator might have suggestions on how more evidence can be gathered, how to protect your rights, and how to see justice done.