Handling Complaints

Complaints are a fact of life for the policing professions.  Many service industries successfully adopt the motto that the customer is always right.  With policing, the truth is that the customer is often wrong and that we are not in the ‘make everyone happy business’.  Often the best that we can hope for is that we were right, fair, professional, and did our best to explain our actions so that even though people might be unhappy they have an accurate appreciation for what we did.

Too often we view complaints as an annoyance or a challenge to our authority.  Viewed from this perspective complaints become something to be ignored or met with disdain.  We prefer not to be questioned.  When we take this point of view we often make the situation worse and miss opportunities for improvement.  Additionally, while we will never make everyone happy, we do want them to feel that they are well served by the police.  We want them to value our service so that they will support us through our tax base.  Otherwise they vote with their feet and we see the budget difficulties that many agencies are experiencing around the country.

The Story

I was going through the drive thru at a local Dunkin’ Donuts (yes, I still live the stereotype even as a retiree) and I noticed a sign posted at the cashier’s work station with the ‘LAST’ acronym posted as the process for handling customer complaints.  ‘LAST’ stands for listen, advice, solve and thank.  It was the first time that I had encountered this acronym but I thought that it had some great applicability for policing.  It does have some limitations, in that we might not reach a solution that made the customer happy, but does provide a template for professionally handling complaints.  I also thought that this fit very well with the processes set out in ‘Verbal Judo’.


Listen – it goes a long way with a complainant when we take the time to actively listen to them and understand their perspective.  Our customers don’t know as much about the law or our procedures as we do.  If they did they wouldn’t have to call us.  Sometimes giving people the sense that you listened to them and considered their perspective is enough to assuage their concerns.

Advice – let the complainant know what their options are in dealing with their complaint.  Confer on what might be the best course of action but acknowledge that in the end it will be their choice.   Resist the temptation to withhold information about resolutions that you might view as less than ideal.  Explain laws, policies and procedures.  Don’t challenge people to call the Chief or the Mayor unless that is an appropriate response and in accordance with procedure.  Remember that you are influencing (leading) the complainant so communicating purpose, direction and motivation for the police action would be ideal.

Solve – again, you might not make the customer happy.  Solve means ensuring that you have explained yourself or your officers to the extent the situation allows.  If the complainant indicates that they would like to take a complaint further then assist them in next steps.  Assuming that we have been fair, right and professional we have nothing to fear from the complaint process going forward.

Thank – let the complainant know that you appreciate the opportunity to address their complaint with them. Even if the complainant chooses to take the complaint elsewhere we still need to leave them with the impression that we were fair, right and professional.

What To Do

At all levels of the organization apply the LAST template in handling complaints.  Additionally, take the opportunity to after-action the complaint.  Were we right, fair, professional and communicative?  Is there something we might have done differently?

At the direct supervision level we need to not only address the complaint but assist our folks in the after-action assessment of the behaviors that led to the initial complaint.  Be careful about not violating labor agreements, or jumping to conclusions. Fulfill your obligation to develop your people.

At the organizational level ensure that your complaint process is administered fairly.  If your people were right, fair, professional and communicative you need to stand by them.  Evaluate your policies and procedures to ensure that you aren’t setting your people up for failure.  Don’t make your complaint policy something to be feared – rather make it a symbol of your agency’s professionalism and your faith in, and support of your troops.

Please share your observations on the best way to handle complaints.


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2 Responses to “Handling Complaints”

  1. Modern Knight Says:

    So many times a complaint is based on a misunderstanding of why the police did that they did and how they did it. Veiwing a complaint as a challenge to your authority and becoming defensive is the quickest way to end your opportunity to resolve those cases with a little education.

    I have found that using that first encounter with someone making a complaint against an officer all about listening, empathetically, without any attempt to defend or explain, pays big dividends in the end. Even when you know they are completely wrong, or think the explanation is simple, it is better to actively listen and affirm them for bringing it to your attention than to try to ‘set them straight’ at that point.

    This approach always makes the return visit, after an investigation is done, much easier. They are not hearing an explanation from someone who they feel had their mind made up and was predisposed to ‘cover for the officer,’ but from someone who honestly listened to them, looked into their complaint and is reporting back to them.

    Your first impression sets the tone. If it turns out to be a bonafide complaint you have lost nothing, but as in most cases, if it is a matter of educating the complainant you have gained a much more teachable audience.


    • Glenn Says:

      This is absolutely true. Active listening is a skill that is foundational to building any type of relationship, whether dealing with complaints or any other relationship – personal or professional.


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