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“Not you again”: Vexatious and querulous complaints

March 29, 2023  By Matthew H. Logan


Less personal than stalking and criminal harassment, but similar in the degree of preoccupation and attempting to gain power and control, we have the vexatious complainant. A vexatious complaint might be part of a campaign of indirect harassment, in that the complainant seeks to recruit a third party who is in a position of authority to take action on their behalf against the complainants intended target. A vexatious complaint is made maliciously and may involve a repetition of unsubstantiated complaints from the same individual. These complaints typically follow a common theme.

This topic is germane for policing in that it has been estimated that “querulous” complainants comprise one to five per cent of all complainants, but that they consume 15 to 30 per cent of complaints handling resources (Mullen & Lester, 2006). Further, it causes much undue stress in policing when an officer is being investigated for a vexatious complaint by the individual I describe as being querulous. It describes some people who lose perspective and become obsessive, paranoid and habitual complainers. Pathology does not lie exclusively in the subjects’ mental state but in their behaviour and its impact on self and others. They seem to revel in the process of having power over another and the pleasure of feeling they are right.

This often takes the form of a complaint to police or the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission and becomes indirect harassment. This is a form of abuse where the perpetrator knows that this is harassment, and the victim of this indirect harassment has little choice but to cooperate with the authority’s investigation. This goes beyond Sir Robert Peel’s second principle that the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions. Transparency does not demand an abuse of process. It is not wrong to protect those who protect us from frivolous or vexatious complaints.

Querulous behaviour is noted by the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD 10) and is often associated with paranoia and delusional disorder and is still commonly seen in the Courts and in vexatious and persecutory complaints to government offices and police agencies (WHO, 1992). The querulous complainant is very unlikely to want their complaint resolved. It’s the process that is their purpose in life, the joy of knowing they are right (Skilling et al, 2012).

On January 1, 2021, Bill C-65 came into effect and amended the Canada Labour Code on workplace harassment and violence. The intent of the federal anti-harassment and violence legislation was to help keep Canadian workers in federally regulated workplaces free from action that would cause physical or psychological injury. It’s my opinion that we should work equally as hard to keep our employees free from vexatious complaints and querulous behaviour within and outside of the workplace.

As a psychologist and a former RCMP officer, I have seen many police officers targeted by the type of person I have described. I have seen the injury caused by the stress a public complaint initiates within the body and mind of the officer. Further, I have seen the feelings of abandonment, or perceived abandonment by the policing organization. The most important psychological injury is caused, not by the actions of the complainant, but by the action and inaction of the organization. “Sanctuary Trauma” occurs when a person feels that the very institution for which they served with great pride, effort and personal risk does not come to their rescue when they experience hardship, but instead acts in such a way to make matters worse (Joannou, 2021).

A policing organization doesn’t have control over the way complaints are received, but there must be a degree of internal control in the manner they are handled. Police departments have historically not defended the organization, nor their valued employees when assailed by frivolous complaints and erroneous allegations. We have been silent to our detriment; our people have too often been left out in the breeze, feeling a betrayal and voicing that “nobody has my back”. The organization must have a mechanism for dealing with vexatious complaints and doing so early in the process, so as to deter the querulous complainant from their aberrant pathway.

I have seen the injury caused by the stress a public complaint initiates within the body and mind of the officer.

As Bill C-65 prevents injury from within the organization, a policy or a bill must clearly define the individual who demonstrates querulous and vexatious behaviour and provide support for officers who are innocent victims of this pathology. Allowing and inviting the behaviour is often revealed in the attitude of “investigate it and it will cease” or “it’s legislated and we must follow the guidelines”. Neither response is acceptable. By changing the attitude, we show support for our employees that are being harassed.

What can the police organization do?

Effective complaint-takers must ask pertinent questions to clarify and establish the grounds for the complaint before any forms are completed or any action is taken. As stated previously, the appropriate resolution of a complaint depends upon sound information gathering, assessing and documenting practices. The complaint-taker must be diligent in properly eliciting and assessing the details. A complaint, no matter how trivial it sounds, must not be addressed solely upon the complaint-taker’s impression of the complainant or whether that complainant is known or not to the detachment/unit. Rather, it must be addressed appropriately based upon the quality, and assessment, of the information.

Assess each individual complaint/allegation on its own merit. Further assess whether a complainant has developed a significant trend or pattern of making complaints that could reasonably be determined to be frivolous, repetitive and/or so numerous as to render investigation or action upon them impractical.

Ask the question: Is the complainant known to be a frequent complainant with a documented history of making numerous frivolous, trivial, repetitively questionable complaints or complaints lacking any factual basis?

A frequent complainant:

  • Makes repeated complaints against one or more subject employees, in one or more detachment areas, over various periods of time. The complainant may proceed to complain to progressive levels of management, and may proceed to complain about employees at each level of management until they exhaust the management structure.
  • Continues to pursue, even after their initial complaint has been addressed, in making complaints similar in nature but slightly changed, with newly added or altered information in order to have his/her concerns (which appear new) reinvestigated and addressed again.
  • Persists in making trivial, frivolous or vexatious complaints about the conduct of employees during incidents in which the police had no requirement to act in the first place (e.g., complaint about lack of service by police in relation to how another government agency treated the complainant).

One of the key challenges for the complaints handler in managing querulous complainants, is to try and create “face saving exits” for the complainant and time these correctly.

It is important to remember that the intent of the public complaint process is one of enhancing public trust and holding the police department and its employees accountable. Public perception and the need to build or restore public trust and increase transparency must be considered. Depending on the specific circumstances of the complaint, it may be in the public interest to investigate. If so, the police department should communicate their process to the officer so there is also internal transparency.

What can the targeted police officer do?

First, it is wise to recognize that there are the noted departmental obligations to the public. Reading policy and discussing the circumstances with a union representative may alleviate some anxiety.

Secondly, take a deep breath and realize that you are not the only person in this situation and anyone with multiple years of service has gone through similar circumstances. Find a peer who can walk with you through this time.

Finally, if this fits the definition of a vexatious complaint, be assured that you are in a temporary, albeit aggravating situation and that you are dealing with an individual who likely has some pathology. Recognize that they have the problem and try not to let their problem use up your energy.

Disclaimer

The views presented in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the official position of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the Government of Canada.

References

  • Joannou, M. (2021). Moral Injury: How do we heal hurts of the heart and soul. Canadian Firefighter. Vol. 44, No. 1
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police (2017). National Public Complaints Guidebook.
  • Skilling G., Ofstegaard M., Brodie S., Thomson L. (2012) Unusually Persistent Complainants Against the Police in Scotland, Police Complaints Commissioner for Scotland.
  • World Health Organisation (1992) The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders. World Health Organisation, Geneva.

Dr. Matt Logan began a law enforcement career in 1980 and served as a member of the RCMP in B.C. for 28 years. He has signed back on with the RCMP and is currently the Criminal Investigative Psychologist in the National Headquarters.


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