The process of filing a police complaint in Harris County can be difficult and lengthy. From understanding your rights to navigating a police agency policy, it’s hard to know where to start.
Across Harris County, different police agencies have set their own rules for filing a complaint against employees. State law dictates that the complaint must be made in writing and signed by the individual making the accusation, but from there, each agency can make its own rules for how complaints should be formatted, where they must be delivered and how the accusation will be investigated.
Local law enforcement investigates hundreds of complaints every year — some of which are sustained, most of which are dismissed without any discipline against officers. The systems and outcomes have frustrated local advocates for police reform, while law enforcement officials have touted improvements in their processes.
Here’s a look at how to file complaints against members of Harris County’s leading departments — the sheriff’s office, Houston Police Department and constables precincts — along with some tips for ensuring a complaint is fully investigated.
Know your rights
Before filing a complaint, it’s important to understand your rights and how the process generally will play out.
A complaint will typically result in an investigation if there’s an allegation of a policy violation by an officer. Some agencies will review claims that don’t rise to the level of a potential policy violation.
When filing a complaint, it’s helpful to have the officer’s name, badge number or patrol car. Some agencies say officers must provide their identifying information upon request.
From there, the law enforcement agency’s own employees, often from an internal affairs division, will review the complaint and investigate. Internal affairs is a unit within a law enforcement agency that investigates allegations of misconduct against its own officers.
The investigation process can take months, and the law enforcement officer will get a chance to defend themselves. The officer will also get a copy of your complaint. Investigators will typically review available physical evidence and video footage, along with conducting interviews.
Each agency has its own process for deciding whether a complaint is “substantiated” or “sustained,” the terms typically used for complaints that are proven by the evidence. If you make a written and signed complaint, you typically will receive a notification about the outcome of the investigation.
Complaining to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office
To file a complaint, you must go to the Sheriff’s Office Internal Affairs Division, located at 5749 South Loop East, Houston, TX, 77033.
You can call the division at 713-274-5003 for information or fill out an online grievance form, but those are merely ways to make initial contact. If you can’t physically travel to the division due to a disability or other circumstance, sheriff’s officials will try to accommodate requests, according to a department official.
While at the Internal Affairs Division, you will be asked to give a sworn statement detailing what you experienced or witnessed. The accused deputy will receive a copy of the complaint, and you will get a letter mailed with the name and contact information of the assigned investigator.
From there, Internal Affairs investigators will review the available evidence, including video footage, medical evidence and witness statements.
During the investigation, you can contact the investigator to ask about the status of the inquiry, but the sheriff’s official will not share findings until the review is complete.
Investigators will deliver a report summarizing their findings to the Sheriff’s Administrative Disciplinary Committee, which consists of bureau commanders or agency officials appointed by the sheriff, according to the agency’s website. Committee members will determine whether a deputy violated agency policy, recommend any discipline and present their findings to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office if they believe a crime has been committed.
If the committee recommends discipline, the accused deputy will get a chance to present their side of the story to investigators at a hearing. (You are not allowed to attend the hearing.)
Ultimately, the Harris County sheriff has final authority on all disciplinary matters. Once the case is decided, you and the deputy will receive a letter explaining the outcome.
If the deputy disagrees with the sheriff’s decision, they can appeal to the Sheriff Civil Service Commission, which oversees appeals of disciplinary actions against deputies. The commission’s seven members are appointed by the sheriff, Harris County Commissioner’s Court and the Harris County district attorney.
If the commission finds that the sheriff was correct in their decision, deputies still have the opportunity to ask the local district court to set aside the commission’s decision, according to state law.
Complaining to the Houston Police Department
There are four ways to file an HPD complaint:
- Fill out a sworn affidavit form in English or Spanish, get it notarized and mail the document to the Internal Affairs/Central Intake Office at 1200 Travis, Suite 2001, Houston, TX, 77002.
- Visit a local patrol station, which is open 24/7, and request a complaint packet. Once filled out, officers can serve as notaries and process the complaint.
- Visit HPD’s Internal Affairs office, where they can take your complaint, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday. The office is in downtown Houston at 1200 Travis, Suite 2001, Houston, TX, 77002.
- Contact the Mayor’s Office of Policing Reform and Accountability, which can initiate a complaint or look into it independently. You can fill out their form here in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Arabic, or email the office at COH_Policing_Reform@houstontx.gov.
You can call the Internal Affairs unit at 713-308-0040 with any questions. Several community organizations recognized by HPD also have staff members trained to help with making a complaint, including the NAACP Houston Branch, the Greater Houston League of United Latin American Citizens Council and Houston Area Urban League. Once a complaint is received, you may be notified by mail.
HPD’s Internal Affairs Division investigates the most serious allegations, including excessive physical force, improper use of a firearm and criminal acts. Claims of “less serious” behavior, such as rudeness by officers, are reviewed by designated staff in the accused officer’s division, according to Assistant Chief Milton Martin.
In both types of inquiries, an investigator gathers and reviews the evidence, their findings are delivered to a lieutenant, who writes a synopsis and makes an initial recommendation to a commander on whether the allegation is sustained.
The commander — if satisfied with the investigation and recommendation — then sends any sustained allegations to lawyers in HPD’s Office of Legal Services for review. The legal department ensures investigators have cited the correct policies and provides input on whether the inquiry was appropriately thorough, Martin said.
Following the legal review, any allegations of using force, firing a weapon, or causing serious bodily injury are sent to the mayor-appointed Independent Police Oversight Board, or IPOB. Board members review the investigation by HPD, ask questions and make a recommendation to the agency based on what they’ve read. IPOB’s powers are limited: The body must review cases within two weeks and largely rely on documents provided by the department, among other restrictions.
Once IPOB completes its review or the Office of Legal Services completes its work in investigations when IPOB is not involved, the case is sent back for an additional discipline recommendation by the commanding officer in the division where the officer is employed.
The case is also sent to the Administrative Disciplinary Committee, which is composed of members of HPD, the Houston Police Officers’ Union and IPOB panel chairpersons. The committee reviews and discusses those cases, then makes its own discipline recommendation.
In cases with sustained allegations, the chief of police meets with the heads of Internal Affairs and Legal Services, as well as union lawyers to discuss the investigation and various discipline recommendations. The police chief then makes a final discipline decision and sends the complainant a letter detailing the findings and disciplinary action taken.
HPD officers can also appeal their decision through their own Police Officers Civil Service Commission, a board appointed by Houston’s mayor and governed by the same state law as the Harris County Sheriff Civil Service Commission.
Complaining to Harris County constable precincts
Eight Harris County constable precincts monitor different areas of the county (here’s a map of the locations). Each precinct has a different process for how to file a complaint and how the accusation will be investigated. Some precincts didn’t respond this week to requests for more information about the complaint investigation process.
Precinct 1: Call the Internal Affairs Division at 713-755-5200 and ask to speak with an investigator in the division. You can also file a complaint in person at their office, which is located on the fifth floor of 1302 Preston St., Houston, TX 77002. An Internal Affairs Division investigator will conduct an inquiry after a sworn statement is given.
Precinct 2: Call 713-274-6178 to speak with the Internal Affairs Division. The office is located at 101 S. Richey St., Suite C, Pasadena, TX 77506. After a sworn statement is provided, an Internal Affairs Division investigator will conduct an investigation.
Precinct 3: File an online complaint through this form.
Precinct 4: Call the Internal Affairs Division at 832-927-6228 or 832-927-6229 to make a complaint. You can also mail a written and signed complaint to 6832 Cypresswood Drive, Spring, TX 77379. The Internal Affairs Division will handle allegations of criminal activity, while the accused officer’s supervisor will review complaints of procedural or policy violations.
Precinct 5: Call the Internal Affairs Division at 832-927-6700, email the division at C5IAD@cn5.hctx.net, or go to the precinct office at 17423 Katy Freeway, Houston, TX 77094.
Precinct 6: Call the Internal Affairs Division at 713-274-3409 and request to speak with an investigator from the division. You can also file a complaint at their office, which is located on the second floor of 5900 Canal St., Houston, TX 77011.
Precinct 7: Call 713-643-6118 and ask to speak with Capt. Jimmy Adams, who oversees the Internal Affairs Division and will investigate the complaint. You can also email him at Jimmy.Adams@cn7.hctx.net.
Precinct 8: Call 281-488-4040, Ext. 1, and request to speak with the on-site supervisor. You can also email the precinct at firstname.lastname@example.org. An on-duty supervisor will gather the initial information about the complaint, which will be investigated by Chief Deputy Jason Finnen.
An alternative to calling the police
The Houston Police Accountability Collaborative Intake Hotline is one way to take action without going directly through a police agency. The goal of the hotline is to provide clear information about an individual’s legal and complaint options, describe the pros and cons of those options, and connect people with other resources they might need, said Brittany Francis, deputy director of litigation at Civil Rights Corps.
Pure Justice, an organization focused on criminal justice reform in the Houston region, and Civil Rights Corps, a national civil rights nonprofit that advocates for people impacted by the justice system, partnered in 2020 to offer the resource to Houstonians.
You can call the hotline at 281-779-4409 to speak with a staff member between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The service is available in English and Spanish, and you can request an interpreter in another language.
On the call, a staff member will walk you through an intake questionnaire, allowing the organization to learn more about your experience, Francis said. The staff member also might send you release forms that allow the organization to get permission to gather information about the case, such as medical records, or contact a lawyer to help gather documents.
“Our ultimate goal is to tell them if they have a viable civil rights lawsuit against the police officers in question,” she said. “And if they do, and if they are interested in moving forward with the lawsuit, our goal is to provide them with contact information for attorneys that may be able to represent them.”
The organization has 12 Houston attorneys that can take cases pro bono or at a low cost. The lawyers have been trained to handle civil rights litigation cases.