How to Make a Complaint Against the Police
Dealing with the police can be a stressful experience. This is only heightened if you feel that police conduct or policies left you dissatisfied or mistreated. The information below provides guidance on how to issue a formal police complaint, and what procedure you can expect once a complaint is lodged.
First Ask Yourself: "What Police Force am I Talking About?"
Before launching a complaint, you must know what police force you were actually dealing with. Alberta is served by a mix of different police agencies operating at various levels:
- At the provincial level, Alberta is policed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Provincial Police Service (the “RCMP”).
- At the municipal or regional level, policing is either performed by municipality’s independent police service (for example, the Calgary or Edmonton Police Service), or by the RCMP via an agreement for services with the municipality authority.
- First Nations communities in Alberta are policed by the RCMP, unless another arrangement for independent or other policing services is arranged.
Page Navigation Guide
What Type of Complaint Are you Bringing?
Who Can Bring a Complaint?
What Happens After I Submit My Complaint?
What If I'm Unhappy with how my Complaint is Decided?
Complaints Regarding the Chief of Police
A. Complaints Regarding a Municipal, Regional or First Nations Police Service
What Type of Complaint are you Bringing?
Your complaint must fall within one of two headings. It must either relate to:
- the conduct of a police officer, or
- a policy or service of a policing organization.
Police Act, 42.1(1),(2), 43(4))
The procedure governing complaints differs depending on which heading your complaint falls under.
Who Can Bring a Complaint?
1. Complaint Regarding Police Conduct
First and foremost, you are entitled to lodge a complaint if it is focused on how a police officer treated you personally. In addition, the following parties can also lodge a complaint:
- A person who witnessed the conduct complained of.
- A person who is in a personal relationship with the victim targeted by the police conduct and has, as a result of the conduct, suffered loss, injury, danger or inconvenience.
- A person who is acting as an agent for the victim of the police conduct. For example, a person can make a complaint on behalf of a friend or relative who was directly affected by police conduct. In these cases, the agent must have written authorization from the victim to make the claim on their behalf.
- The guardian of a child, young person, or represented adult. In these cases, the parent or guardian can make a complaint on behalf of the youth or represented adult without needing the victim’s authorization.
(Police Act, 42.1(2))
2. Complaint Regarding Police Services/Polices
Anyone can make a complaint about a policy or service of a police service.
(Police Act s. 42.1(3))
How Do You File a Complaint?
The Police Act requires a complaint be written and signed by the person making it (Police Act, 42.1(4)). In practice, many police services have telephone or verbal complaint intake processes. While you can use these services to initiate your complaint, a formal investigation cannot be started unless the complaint is ultimately written down.
Your written complaint can be completed in a number of ways:
- You can send a letter by mail or e-mail (Police Act, 42.1(5)).
- You may print out a complaint form from the police service’s website and either mail or deliver it to the address of the particular police service.
- Some police service websites have on-line portals for complaints where you may fill out a form. You can submit the forms on-line by clicking submit.
To Whom Do I Address the Complaint?
The Police Act directs that all complaints be sent to the Chief of Police designated for that municipality, regional centre, or First Nations Community (collectively referred to as “community”) (Police Act, 43(1)). The Chief of Police will review the complaint and, depending on what type of complaint it is, may handle the investigation (for complaints about police conduct) or may forward it to the community Police Commission (for complaints about policies).
If you are not comfortable forwarding your complaint directly to the Chief of Police, you have another option. Every Police Commission has a Public Complaint Director for that community. You have the option of submitting your complaint to your community’s Public Complaint Director. It is worth noting, however, that the Public Complaint Director does not conduct an investigation independent of the Chief of Police. He or she merely forwards the complaint to the Chief, and monitors how the complaint is processed.
If you want to make a complaint against the Chief of Police him/herself, you should direct the complaint directly to the Chair of the Police Commission for your community (Police Act, 43(2)).
Information Needed for a Complaint
The Police Act requires a complaint to include the following information:
- the full name, address and contact information of the complainant;
- if the complaint is made by an agent, the agent’s full name, address and contact information;
- if the complaint deals with the conduct of a police officer,
o the date of the alleged conduct, if known,
o the identification of the police officer, if known, and
o a description of the incident at issue;
- if the complaint is in respect of a policy or service of a police service, sufficient information to identify the policy or service complained of; and
- any other information requested.
Police Act s. 42.1(4)
If you use the online or paper complaint forms provided by many police services, it will prompt you to provide this information in the document (for example, see the Calgary Police Service’s online complaint form here).
It is also helpful for your complaint to describe what action you think should be or ought to have been taken.
Time Limits for Complaints
There is a time limitation for bringing complaints against a police officer. You cannot bring a complaint more than one year after the conduct complained of occurred, or more than one year after you first knew or ought to have known that the conduct complained of had occurred. You should make sure to file your complaint before the later of the two dates expires (Police Act, 43(11))
What Happens After I Submit My Complaint?
The Police Act provides a standard procedure for dealing with complaints. In practice, there may be slight variance in how each police service administers this process. The following is a general outline of what you likely can expect after filing a complaint.
- Intake: Most police services have a Professional Standards Section which routinely handles intake of public complaints. These intake officers will likely contact you for more details, and determine what type of resolution you are seeking.
Complaints Regarding Conduct of a Police Officer
- Informal Resolution
Before commencing a formal investigation of your complaint, police authorities will try to resolve your complaint informally. Both you and the officer whose conduct is complained of must consent to any informal resolution (Police Act, 43.1).
They may also propose an alternative resolution process. This alternative process will involve independent third parties knowledgeable with the issues raised in the complaint. The Public Complaint Director is usually in charge of the alternative resolution process. Informal resolution remains an option throughout the investigation process, so long as all parties consent.
If an informal resolution cannot be reached, the Chief of Police will commence an investigation (Police Act, 45(1)). As part of the investigation, you will likely be interviewed. You should be prepared to cooperate with the investigation and any hearing that may stem from your complaint. If you refuse to cooperate, your complaint will be dismissed.
o You will be given written notification every 45 days regarding the investigation.
- Hearing and/or Referral
When the investigation is completed, the Chief of Police will initiate the next step.
If the investigation demonstrates that the conduct complained of constitutes a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General for appropriate action (Police Act, 45(2)(a)).
If the investigation demonstrates that the standards of police conduct were breached, the Chief of Police must institute a hearing into the matter as it relates to the contravention (Police Act, 45(2)(b),(3)).
However, if, in the judgment of the chief of police, the contravention was not of a “serious nature” the chief may dispose of the matter, following guidance provided by the Alberta Police Regulations, without conducting a hearing (Police Act, 45(4)).
- You will be advised in writing regarding the final disposition on your complaint.
Complaints Regarding Policies or Services
The process for dealing with complaints regarding police policies or services is less formalized than that developed for police conduct.
A complaint regarding the policies or services of a police agency will be reviewed by the Chief of Police who can take whatever action he or she considers appropriate, including referring the complaint to the Commission. The Commission may review the complaint and take whatever action it considers appropriate.
Once the Chief and/or the Commission have determined what steps, if any, will be taken, you will be advised of that disposition in writing
What If I'm Unhappy with the Decision?
You are often able to appeal a decision you disagree with. The appeal procedure you follow depends on what type of claim you have launched.
Complaints Regarding the Conduct of a Police Officer
If you are dissatisfied with the Chief of Police or the Commission’s resolution of your complaint, you have the right to appeal that decision to the Law Enforcement and Review Board [the Board]. The Board is an independent non-police body consisting of a chairperson and two members appointed by the provincial government.
This appeal can relate to the final disposition of your complaint following a formal investigation or hearing, or a summary dismissal of your complaint.
To appeal to the Board you have to file with a written notice explaining the grounds of your appeal within 30 days of being advised of the decision. The Board will advise you, in writing, of the date, time and place of the hearing and what, if anything, will be required of you. You have the right to counsel should you so choose.
The Board can be contacted at the following address:
Law Enforcement Review Board
c/o Board Secretary
1502 City Centre Place
Edmonton, Alberta T5J 2Z2
If your appeal to the Board related to summary dismissal of your complaint, the Board’s decision is final and you have no further right of appeal. As always, however, this finality is subject to your right to pursue Judicial Review in the Court of Queen’s Bench. To find out more about Judicial Review, click here.
If your appeal related to a decision following a formal investigation or hearing, you can apply to the Alberta Court of Appeal and seek leave to appeal to this Court. You have 30 days from the date that the Board gives its decision to launch your application. This right of further appeal is limited in that it only applies to appeals you are appealing on the ground of some legal error made by the Board and, in addition, if you obtain the permission of a judge of the Court of Appeal. Again, this limit is subject to your right to pursue Judicial Review in the Court of Queen’s Bench. To find out more about Judicial Review, click here.
Disposition of complaint respecting policies and services
- A complaint regarding the policies or services of a police agency will be reviewed by the Chief of Police who can take whatever action he or she considers appropriate, including referring the complaint to the Commission. The Commission may review the complaint and take whatever action it considers appropriate.
If you are dissatisfied with the way your complaint was resolved, you can appeal to the Commission for a review within 30 days from the date that you are advised of the disposition. A decision of the commission at this stage is final.
This limit is subject to your right to pursue Judicial Review in the Court of Queen’s Bench. To find out more about Judicial Review, click here.
A Note on Frivolous Claims
You must see to it that your complaint is adequately supported by facts known to you. There must be a real substance to your complaint and you must be specific in detailing what happened. If it is determined that your complaint is not supported by facts or that you are not willing or ready to work with the police to ascertain the truth of the matter, or that your complaint is brought in bad faith, your complaint may be dismissed before an investigation or hearing is conducted (Police Act, s 43(6)-(10.1)). You will receive written notice of such dismissal.
If this happens to you, you are entitled to pursue the appeal procedures described above (click here to be redirected to this discussion).
Complaints Against the Chief of Police
If your complaint is against the Chief of Police, you should direct it to the Chair of the Police Commission that oversees the particular police service. If the Commission finds any substance to the complaint upon initial review, the Chair will refer the complaint to the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General who will request another police service to investigate the complaint, usually the Chief of that other police service.
If the investigation leads to the conclusion that a criminal offence may have been committed, the matter will be referred to the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General for appropriate action.
But if the investigation indicates that there was conduct in contravention of police standards, the complaint will be referred back to the Commission that first received the complaint. At this stage, the Commission will conduct a hearing into the complaint, unless they determine that the contravention in question is not of a serious nature.
The Police Act has special provisions for dealing with situations where serious injury or death occurs as a result of a police officer’s actions. They also apply to matters of “a serious or sensitive nature” related to the actions of a police officer.
These serious incidents are handled by a special investigating body known as the Alberta Serious Incidents Response Team (ASIRT).
ASIRT does not take complaints from the public; rather files are forwarded to it by the office of the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General. If you have any complaints involving a serious incident you should report to the police service in question in the ordinary manner or lodge it as a complaint through any of the methods discussed here.
B. Complaints Regarding the RCMP
Complaints regarding the RCMP are governed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act, RSC 1985 c R-10 [RCMP Act]. Click here to view a chart that outlines the RCMP complaints process described below.
What Type of Complaint Can I Make?
The RCMP Act deals with complaints regarding the conduct of an RCMP officer or member while they were performing their duties under the RCMP Act or the Witness Protection Program Act (RCMP Act, s 45.53(1)).
Who Do I Complain To?
The RCMP Act gives you several different options for lodging a complaint. A complaint may be made to:
- the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (the “Commission”) for the RCMP (click here to be directed to the Commission’s complaints portal);
- any member or employee of the RCMP in your province. In practice, persons who are filing their complaint this way are typically told to address their complaint to the Commanding Officer for Alberta’s RCMP (known as “K” Division);
- the Provincial Public Complaint Director designated by the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General (click here for more information on the Provincial Public Complaints Director).
RCMP Act, s 45.53(8)
Who Can Bring A Complaint?
While “anyone” can make a complaint regarding the conduct of an RCMP officer or member, the Commission can refuse to deal with a complaint if it is brought by someone who does not fall within the following categories:
- A person complaining about RCMP conduct directed towards themselves.
- A person who has suffered “loss, damage, distress, danger or inconvenience as a result of the conduct” forming the basis of the complaint.
- A person who is the legal guardian of the victim of the alleged misconduct (for example, the parent or guardian of a young person or represented adult).
- A witness to the conduct complained of or its effects.
- An agent of the victim of the alleged misconduct. For example, a person can make a complaint on behalf of a friend or relative who was directly affected by police conduct. In these cases, the agent must have written authorization.
RCMP Act, s 45.33(2)(c)
How Do I Make a Complaint?
The Commission, RCMP, and Public Complaint Director each have several avenues you can pursue to lodge a complaint. Keep in mind, however, that your complaint must ultimately be reduced to writing before any investigation is commenced.
- The Commission allows for complaints to be lodged online, via telephone, or by mail (click here to be directed to their complaints portal). Your written complaint can be mailed to the following address:
Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP
National Intake Office
P.O. Box 88689
Surrey, BC V3W 0X1
- You may complain to any RCMP officer in person. It is the detachment commander’s job to ensure your complaint is dealt with appropriately. You may also write a letter to the Commanding Officer, RCMP "K" Division c/o North West Region Professional Standards Section (NWRPSS):
c/o North West Region Professional Standards Section
RCMP "K" Division
11140 – 109 Street
Edmonton, Alberta T5G 2T4
- Complaints to the Provincial Public Complaint Director can be made via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via mail to:
Provincial Public Complaint Director
Law Enforcement and Oversight Branch
Alberta Justice and Solicitor General
Public Security Division
10th Floor, 10365-97 Street
Edmonton, Alberta T5J 3W7
What Information Should My Complaint Include?
Your complaint should be in writing and must contain the reasons for your complaint and the details of the incident involved or the aspect of service delivery you find unsatisfactory.
How Long Do I have to Make a Complaint?
Your complaint should be received within one year after the conduct forming the basis of the complaint is alleged to have occurred (RCMP Act, s 45.53(5)).
This time limitation may be extended if there are good reasons for doing so and it is not contrary to the public interest (RCMP Act, s 45.53(6)).
The Complaints Process
Regardless of which avenue you used to register your complaint, once your complaint is entered, written notice of it will be forwarded to you (the complainant), the Commission and the Provincial Public Complaints Director (RCMP Act, s 45.53(10)). A copy will also be forwarded to the RCMP member named in your complaint, unless doing so would compromise the investigation to follow (RCMP Act, s 45.54).
If you and the responding RCMP officer agree, your complaint may be resolved informally (RCMP Act, s 45.56(1)) Even so, the terms of any such resolution and the agreement of all the parties to them are required to be in writing, and served on the Commission (RCMP Act, s 45.56(3)).
Investigation of complaint by the Force
If informal resolution is not chosen, the RCMP force will start a formal investigation into your complaint (RCMP Act, s 45.6(1)). This default procedure can be disrupted if the Commission opts to, and notifies the RCMP Commissioner that it will be conducting the investigation (RCMP Act, s 45.6(2)).
During the investigation, you will receive periodic written updates of the progress of the investigation (within 45 days after receiving notification of the complaint, and monthly thereafter) (RCMP Act s 45.63).
Disposition of complaint after investigation
When the investigation is completed the Commissioner will prepare and send you, the RCMP officer named in the complaint, and the Commission a written report detailing what the investigation revealed and a summary of any action that has been or will be taken (RCMP Act s 45.64).
The report must also advise you of your right to refer the complaint to the Commission for review within 60 days or receiving the report if you are not satisfied with how your complaint was handled (RCMP Act s 45.64(d)).
There are several stages throughout the complaint process where your complaint may be dismissed. For example:
- Your complaint may be dismissed if you do not fit within one of the designated parties who are entitled to launch a complaint (RCMP Act, 45.53(2)(c)).
- Your complaint may also be so dismissed if it is found to be trivial or brought in bad faith (RCMP Act, 45.53(2)(b)).
- Even when your complaint is otherwise cogent, it may be refused if it is determined that the complaint has been adequately dealt with, or could more appropriately be dealt with according to another procedure provided for in the RCMP Act or any other federal law (RCMP Act, 45.53(2)(a)); 45.61(1)).
If your complaint is dismissed summarily, you have a right of appeal. You will receive written notice of the termination, and of your right to refer the complaint to the Commission for review within 60 days of receiving that written notice. Appeals are discussed in more detail below.
Appeals, Reviews and Referrals
Referral to the Commission
The Commission is a review board for individual complaints. It hears appeals regarding civilian complaints investigated by the RCMP. Appeals or referrals must be made within 60 days of being notified of a decision, except an extension of time is granted by the Commission (RCMP Act, s 45.7).
Decisions that you can appeal to the Commission include:
- an initial refusal to hear your complaint for any reason,
- a decision not to investigate your complaint, or to terminate an investigation already started for any reason,
- a final report following its investigation of your complaint, if you are not satisfied with its findings or decisions.
Review by the Commission
When you file an appeal regarding a final decision, the Commission reviews your complaint and the decision.
If, after reviewing the Complaint, the Commission satisfied with the RCMP Commissioner’s decision, a report to that effect will be sent to all parties (RCMP Act, s 45.71(2)). If it is not satisfied with the RCMP commissioner’s decision, or considers that further inquiry is needed, the Commission may:
(a) prepare and send to the Minister and the Commissioner a report setting out any findings and recommendations it sees fit,
(b) request the commanding officer of the RCMP in Alberta to direct a further investigation, or
(c) conduct its own investigation into the complaint or institute a hearing into your complaint. The hearing is usually held in public and you have the right to be represented by counsel and to call witnesses (RCMP Act s 45.73).
After the Commission conducts an investigation or hearing, it will prepare and send an initial report to the commanding officer for appropriate action.
RCMP Act, s 45.71(3)
The RCMP Commissioner responds to the Commission’s initial report in writing by either acting on its findings and recommendations or giving reasons why it will not do so (RCMP Act 45.72(1)). The Commission will then issue its final report disposing of the complaint (RCMP Act s 45.72(2).
There is no further right of appeal. Of course, you always retain the right to bring an application for Judicial Review to the Court of Queen’s Bench. Click here for more information on judicial review in Alberta.