A complaint is free advice

Social media are a rich source for finding complaints about the police. Direct contact between citizens and police officers is also an important channel to gauge citizens' dissatisfaction. In addition, organisations that mediate in conflicts have a wealth of information about what is happening among citizens. The police can systematically use these three channels if they want to perceive more forms of dissatisfaction of citizens and turn them into learning moments. This is the conclusion of Gabriele Jacobs and Marja Flory from from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and Gaby Vanderveen from Erasmus School of Law, based on a study commissioned by the research foundation “Politie en Wetenschap”.

Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used in the research. An exploratory, qualitative document analysis provided input for the investigation, as well as quantitative analyses of the dozens of annual reports of the complaints committees. Semi-structured interviews were held with police officers, citizens and with institutions who have a lot of knowledge about complaints from citizens (e.g. ombudsman, activist groups and journalists). Two cases of a social media storm were analysed, as well as reviews on police Facebook pages.

With a team of researchers, Gabriele Jacobs, co-director of CESAM, looked at what other channels besides the official complaints system the police could use to have ' eyes and ears' for the society and to get a realistic picture of sources of dissatisfaction of citizens. An important finding is that the official complaint system of the police focuses on a specific category of complaints and thus, excludes several other categories of complaints. Citizens have more and other complaints than those provided for in the complaints system and they express these complaints through other channels, such as social media and direct contacts with police officers.

Nowadays many citizens use Facebook or Twitter when they want to express their dissatisfaction about the police. The police can actually use these channels in order to consider more forms and facets of dissatisfaction of citizens and to turn them into learning moments. Such learning should take place in a systematic manner on several levels in the organization. Complaints against individual officers should be more systematically translated into trainings for other officers and leaders. Police teams should discuss complaints on a regular basis and report complaints back to the organization. In such a way complaints can form a rich basis for the diagnosis of service failures and improvements. Furthermore, important lessons can be taken from expert organizations in the environment of the police, such as activist groups, the media or the ombudsman. The cooperation with these groups can imply that police learns about opportunities for improvement. Yet, an important insight of the research is also, that a large amount of complaints the police receive is actually not so much rooted in police malfunctioning, but reflects more general tensions and issues in the society. It is important that the police feeds this kind of information back to external institutions so that they can appropriately react.