Should I Dismiss Anonymous Complaints?

If you have spent any time working in investigations, you have probably seen several allegations made by anonymous complainants. Different agencies take a different approach when handling anonymous complaints, but should you dismiss complaints made by those unwilling to identify themselves or come forward to assist in the investigation?

In a word: no.

Every investigative group has its protocol for managing incoming referrals. In our agency, we refer to the management of referrals as Intake. Some investigative groups can triage complaints and decide whether it makes sense to open a full-blown investigation on the matter. Other groups have Intake staff or investigators conduct preliminary reviews to determine whether a full-scale investigation is warranted. Whatever your process, we should be sure we are handling anonymous complaints with the same level of care as people who identify themselves as the source of the complaint. It is not hard to imagine that someone might use a false name or provide erroneous identifying information if they are trying to guarantee their anonymity. So, already, it doesn't make much sense to treat an anonymous complaint any differently than allegations made by a person who has provided false identifying information.

I have caught several investigators trying to close out an investigation upon receiving it because there is no complainant listed in the referral. Their reports say things like, "Because no complainant was listed, the investigator was unable to conduct an investigation." Or, "The reporting person did not provide evidence to substantiate the complaint, and because there is no contact information for the reporting person, the investigation is being administratively closed." The list goes on, but the main idea is that if you allow investigators to close cases because the complainant is anonymous, you might be placing the affected parties, including the investigator, unit, and agency, in jeopardy.

While investigating anonymous complaints is undoubtedly more challenging, it is essential to understand that not all anonymous complaints are created equal. Some will have information that can be verified or have leads an investigator can pursue. And, of course, there will be some anonymous complaints that do not have enough information to warrant an investigation. The point is that we should take the time and make an effort to examine each anonymous complaint for investigational viability.

I also think it is worth noting why some people make anonymous allegations. While some investigators feel anonymity equals a lack of credibility, there are valid reasons why a reporting person would not want to reveal their identity.

Generally, people are afraid of loss. Sometimes, this can be something tangible like losing their job, and other times, something more intangible, like not being publicly embarrassed for their involvement in a compromising situation. An employee or member of a group might be afraid of retaliation. Others will not trust the system, worrying that they will be left out in the cold to fend for themselves if the investigation is unsuccessful. Others might be in actual or perceived danger, or maybe they are closely connected to the person they are reporting. These examples present the likelihood that a person wants to report some misconduct or wrongdoing while being afraid of any repercussions or fallout. So, instead of thinking of an anonymous complainant as someone who is not serious or helpful about stopping some harmful or illegal behavior, we should think of anonymous complainants as people who have something to lose by reporting some violation. Still, they have decided not to stand by and do nothing. This decision requires a person in this situation to make a complaint anonymously. Understanding the context of this situation should motivate investigators to do their due diligence to ensure that some egregious violation is not going unchecked.

There are some basic strategies investigators should use when approaching anonymous complaints.

Ask the following questions.

What is the criminal or policy violation that is being referenced? Knowing this can help you develop a strategy based on your previous investigative experience when dealing with the same types of allegations with a known complainant. What information in the last investigation was useful or used to gather evidence?

Is the information vague or detailed? Incomplete information often leads to a referral where the reporting person throws several allegations on the wall, hoping the investigator will make one stick. However, a very detailed referral usually means that someone on the inside is making the report. This firsthand knowledge can lend credibility to the complaint and provide the investigator with several leads.

What evidence is given or suggested in the complaint? The reporting person might be pointing investigators in a specific direction, stopping short when a piece of information might tip off the subject of the investigation as to who reported them.

Does this information rise to the level of a full-scale investigation? Or, are there leads the investigator can examine during a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a potential full-scale investigation is warranted? Often, gathering initial information and speaking with a few people will produce the missing information you need to investigate the allegation further. Investigators should also note that anonymous complainants often provide enough information in their referral that will result in the investigator speaking with them, even though the investigator might never know the person was the reporting party. Also, be careful about pushing an interviewee into revealing whether they were the anonymous complainant, especially if you cannot offer reasonable protection against retaliation. While listening to a recorded interview, I once heard an investigator conducting a witness interview press the interviewee, asking them about eight times whether they were the anonymous complainant, even though it was irrelevant to the particular situation.

Another helpful question to ask yourself is, "if this violation was indeed occurring, then where would I find evidence of this specific act?" Who would know how this violation could occur? Where would the evidence trail be found?

While my Intake unit shuts down some anonymous complaints that are vague, incomplete, or that deal with violations not under our purview, we have experienced that solid casework and detailed interviews produce successful cases for both administrative and criminal investigations.

I encourage you to check and see how your intake unit handles anonymous complaints and whether you can crack a case, even without having a known complainant. These are often the most critical cases to follow up on and resolve. Do not dismiss these types of cases without looking at them carefully.

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