The citizen complaint form was numbered 90-315. Quinzella Greene hurried her pen over the paper in big, bouncy script. Her 8s were two stacked doughnuts, her D’s fat sails. She didn’t bother with much punctuation. By the looks of it, she just wanted to get the thing done.
It was Sept. 14, 1990, the day after the incident she was reporting to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent office charged with investigating allegations of police misconduct. Greene filled in the blanks tersely. She didn’t get the officer’s full name, only “Dunston.” She left the incident’s address as “Foote St. N.E.” Under the “Nature of complaint,” she put “neck trauma”—adding, by the incident’s date, “eccessive use of force” in marker.
Then at the bottom, Greene got down to what happened:
I was walking to get my baby. Seen a friend while passing through spoke when I started to walk a burgundy van speeds around the corner police jumps out and starts swinging and hits me in the back of the head pushing me on to the van I asked one of the lady police why did the man hit. And she said baby you can leave
The wash of words almost reads in real time, re-creating the suddenness of the alleged police brutality. You feel the swift, violent shift in momentum that can happen in the District: One second you’re talking to a friend, the next some thumper cop is using your head for a Wiffle ball.
The ending especially rings right and true and believable: “And she said baby you can leave.” It’s the hallmark of lots of citizen complaints—the fuck-you ending from the cops. Complaint 90-156: “One of the ofcs called my son a motherfucked.” Complaint 91-032: “I’d held my hand out he through the ticket up inside the car at the dashboard.” Complaint 91-272: “[H]e told me you better get out my face before I lock your ‘ass’ up.”
Raymond Chandler couldn’t have wrapped up a piece on a more hard-boiled note. Or with a bleaker lament than that of Timothy Evans in Complaint 93-164. After writing about being roughed up and choked by an officer, Evans concluded, “And I wasn’t told what I was arrested for until I was in the police station.”
These complaints amount to literature—memoirs of the citizenry’s uneasy, often brutal relationship with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). They are dispatches from the war on drugs, letters from crack’s heyday.
When they were written, the letters largely went ignored. Greene’s complaint ended up behind a backlog of hundreds of others. By the late ’80s, the backlog peaked at 1,500 cases.
After a 13-year run, the Civilian Complaint Review Board closed shop in 1995 because it never could manage the complaint load. The remaining open complaints, roughly 800 of them, were transferred—along with all the ones that had been processed—to police headquarters, where the department appears to have ignored them.
Three days before the new Office of Citizen Complaint Review opened its downtown offices, on Jan. 8, 2001, the police department dropped 80 to 100 cardboard boxes, containing all those thousands of old complaints, at the group’s door. Many of the complaints were dog-eared, out-of-order, or missing pages. Others contained department memos not related to the cases. Ever since that day, both the new board and the MPD have tried to get each other to take responsibility for the old complaints, all those literary pieces of alleged police violence.
In December 2001, cops and board members met to hash out a home for the files. According to Philip K. Eure, the board’s executive director, the police agreed to take back the complaints that had been resolved by MPD. Five months later, with the transfer incomplete, officers stopped retrieving the files.
“I think it’s shameful the way those documents were basically dumped on us,” Eure says. “We were a new agency when we opened in January 2001. We had only a couple of people, and immediately we were responding to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests, and I think if the MPD had either disposed of these documents properly or had organized them better it would have been more manageable for them.”
For the time being, Complaint 90-315 remains jammed in a cardboard box unread. Next year, that box could be stuffed even deeper into storage.
These complaints aren’t routine municipal paperwork. They’re evocations of the reality of living with the drug war. Everyone knows about the murder rate in the District, the victims of homicide, the open-air drug markets. The story of those battles has been told.
The citizen complaints show another side of things. While the easily digested good-vs.-evil conflict raged on—police against dealers, order against chaos—the complaints were documenting the grinding effects of living on the battlefield. They lay bare the mistakes, the foibles, and the increasingly poisoned relationship between cops and the people they’re supposed to be protecting.
The on-the-ground primary sources are kids, parents, average citizens—and sometimes small-time hoodlums. These are the folks who faced the jump-outs, the random searches, and the home raids.
And they’re the people who, after clashing with a badge, still braved trudging to the station house and asking for a complaint form. “Went to make a criminal complaint,” writes the author of Complaint 91-354, whose name is blacked out,
and officer Wilson told me I was talking too loud she told me if I don’t be quiet She was going to lock me up. I ask her For What? When 5 white male officers approach me antagonized me and smack me in my face, and asking each other their sexual preference and used profanity language to me and started to discriminate about Jamaican.
These stories can be stirring in the way they glide from the mundane to the brutal. The narrative arcs tend to mimic the short stories of Flannery O’Connor—from innocent details to misunderstandings to tragic endings.
Eugene Turner, author of Complaint 85-116, has the gothic prose style down:
I was catching cups from my window that my brother was throwing down to me to give to my mother. There were four officers which dumped out of there car and came running where I was. They asked me what I had, and I explained or tried to tell them that I had paper cups to give to my mother. One grabbed my arm, and one pushed me and I pushed him back. Then the officer started Punching and Kicking me Slamming me against the building. And by that time was joined by two other officers and one started choking me.
Turner continues for another page. His mother joined the scene and pleaded, he writes, telling the officers that this was all a mistake. The author builds the tension up with each sentence, with each new detail. His brother came outside, too. Then things turned real bad: “They started to draw a weapon on my brother. They shoved my mother back with a stick to prevent her from talking to the officer. They searched me once against the wall and again before entering the car.”
The police had their own arc, too, shifting from abusive bumbling to orderly control of the scene to covering up. “Once we entered the station (a half an hour later) they tried to say that I had prossession of herion, then they changed the charge to disorderly conduct, and I forfeited…”
Without realizing it, Turner changes, too. He implicates himself when he writes that he pushed the cop. In the end, he pays the fine—which means that he surrenders his right to fight what happened in court. He admits at least to being somewhat culpable.
The story’s greatness is in its ambiguity, capturing the messy way in which the police and the citizens patrolled themselves. There are no clear thugs, no clear victims.
The police, in many complaints, are near-mythic figures, reflecting the way some officers try to control neighborhoods by bullying them. They can be nameless, like a force of nature. “The so call jump-outs do not wear any type of uniform to identify themself so people really don’t know rather they are policemens, or rather there are stone criminals,” writes Paul H. Jordan in Complaint 93-124.
Jordan’s is a common experience. “There was a man underneath the Stairs in my backyard,” writes Evans in 93-164, building up the suspense. “He walked towards me. Then he grabbed me by my throat, threw a gun in my face, and pushed me to the ground while choking me.”
“He said don’t move. I said what’s the problem? He said shut the fuck up. I said ‘what’s Up?’ He then said if you say another word that he would bust me in my face. I then Realized that there was a badge around his neck and that I wasn’t being robbed.”
Faye Haskins, the archivist at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library’s Washingtoniana Room, says if no other office will take these complaints, she will, without question. “They are historical documentation that should be saved,” she says, adding that her facility has the space for hundreds of complaints. “I would take them if no one else takes them.”
Haskins says that the Office of Public Records would get first crack at them, because they are government documents.
Whatever happens, the files should be preserved. If the MPD and the new complaint board can’t agree on what to do with them, then maybe they don’t deserve these pieces of literature.
The library would be the ideal home. The place is accessible. The librarians up on the third floor work independently of the police department and don’t carry Glocks or harbor bad attitudes.
The Washingtoniana Room already has vertical files on every city topic imaginable, dating back to the 1920s. All it needs is a few more cabinets.
And the District needs these complaints to live on, to be accessible to anyone who cares to look. The authors deserve as much. They already know what it’s like to have their words fall on deaf ears.
Consider, for posterity, Thomas Martinus, author of Complaint 91-289, who ends his tale in mid-beating: “I told them I couldn’t [breathe] and The officers Just ignored me like I wasn’t there.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrated by Robert Meganck.