“Strong relationships of mutual trust between police agencies and the communities they serve are critical to maintaining public safety and effective policing. Police officials rely on the cooperation of community members to provide information about crime in their neighborhoods, and to work with the police to devise solutions to crime and disorder problems. Similarly community members’ willingness to trust the police depends on whether they believe that police actions reflect community values and incorporate the principles of procedural justice and legitimacy.” — Community Relations Service, U.S. Department of Justice.
Police misconduct complaints generally should be made to the following:
- The local police department’s internal affairs unit, or a department supervisor;
- The county District Attorney, if the local police department has been unresponsive;
- The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) – the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office (Eastern District of PA; Middle District of PA; Western District of PA), or Civil Rights Division, Criminal Section and Special Litigation Section.
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General does not have direct administrative or criminal jurisdiction over police departments or police misconduct issues. The Criminal Law Division can prosecute cases of local police misconduct only when referred by district attorneys. In extraordinary cases, the Civil Rights Enforcement Section can sue a department under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a pattern or practice of civil rights violations. See Commonwealth v. Porter, 659 F.2d 306 (3d Cir. 1981).
The legal rules governing lawful policing can be complex and highly dependent on the situation. The following discussion is intended to provide just a basic summary of key principles that apply in various contexts – principles that apply. All real-life situations must be carefully analyzed in light of all the facts and applicable law.
A police officer is permitted to stop a person based on reasonable suspicion, which means specific and articulable facts that lead the officer to think that a person is involved in a crime. A hunch, a gut feeling, or vague suspicions are not enough.
Only if an officer has reasonable suspicion that a stopped person has a weapon, may they frisk the person, which means they may pat the outside of the person’s clothing to see if any weapons are felt. An officer is NOT permitted to frisk every person that they stop. Only if an officer feels a weapon during a frisk can they reach into a person’s clothing to retrieve the weapon.
If an officer has probable cause to believe a person is or was involved in a crime, the officer can search the person, including reaching inside their clothing, like opening pockets or reaching inside a jacket.
In order to arrest a person, an officer needs probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime.
An officer may only use force to stop or arrest a person if reasonable under the circumstances and not excessive.
Officers must refrain from discriminatory law enforcement based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, or any other impermissible factor.
Nothing on this page should be construed as legal advice.