BLOG: Using complaints as free advice

Social media are a rich source of complaints about the police, and the direct contact between citizens and police are also a major channel to probe the displeasure of citizens. Additionally, organisations mediating in conflicts have a rich treasure trove of information about what citizens think. The police can use these channels systematically if they want to identify more forms of displeasure among citizens and convert this displeasure into learning moments. This is the conclusion of Professor Gabriele Jacobs of Rotterdam School of Managament, Erasmus University (RSM) and her research team on the basis of a study commissioned by Politie & Wetenschap (Police & Science). 

The police consider complaints from citizens as an opportunity to improve the quality of police action. There is a procedure to handle complaints, but in this study, the researchers from RSM’s Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM) and the Erasmus School of Law tried to find out which channels police could also use to get a realistic picture of expressions of displeasure among citizens. For example, many people now use social media to share positive and negative experiences. The research team also studied how the police can learn from complaints at various levels in the organisation. 

Learning moments

Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used in the study. An exploratory, qualitative document analysis as well as quantitative analyses of dozens of annual reports of the complaint committees served as input for the follow-up of the study. In the follow-up study, semi-structured interviews were conducted with police staff, with citizens with complaints, and with institutions and people who have much knowledge about complaints from citizens, such as  activist organisations, ombudsman and journalists. Two cases of social media storms were analysed too, as well as reviews on a Facebook page from the Dutch police. 

One of the major findings is that the current complaint handling procedure of the police only deals with complaints about the behaviour of a specific police officer against the complainant, and excludes various other complaint categories. Citizens have more and other complaints than those foreseen in the complaint handling procedure, and they express these complaints through other channels, such as social media. The police can use these channels if they want to identify more forms of displeasure among citizens and convert this displeasure into learning moments. 

It was also found that via the complaint handling procedure of the police, lessons can be learned at the level of the individual officer who was the target of the complaint. This officer can receive specific training, for example. But it is important that more systematic learning takes place at other levels, such as he district level and the general organisational level. They could for example evaluate if certain approaches or procedures in general contributed to the specific behaviour of the police officer. The consideration of a broader portfolio of complaints would help the police to also understand broader issues and could help to maintain and enhance the legitimacy of the police.

Does this mean that the police have to react to every tweet and that they have to act whenever displeasure occurs? This would be absolutely impossible, says Prof. Jacobs. The final objective should be that complaints are systematically used as ‘free advice’ from the citizens to continuously improve the police services. This study may contribute to realising this objective by providing insight into the possibilities.

The report (in Dutch) can be downloaded here: 

Police and science 

The research programme Politie en Wetenschap (Police and Science) connects science and the Dutch police. The intention is to conduct scientific research that leads to better police practice. The programme started in 1999, commissions independent research, and is financed with an annual contribution from the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security. To increase the transfer of knowledge, investments are made in scientific research with a clear added value for police practice and police education. 

Gabriele Jacobs is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Culture at the Department of Organisation and Personnel Management at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). She is the co-director of the Centre of Excellence on Public Safety Management (CESAM) which she co-founded in 2014. Jacobs is involved in several EU-projects in the field of safety and security. Next to this she coordinates and conducts national research projects focusing for example on Dutch police reform and changes in the law system.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Ivo Martijn, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at

Photo: (CC BY-SA 2.0Frans Berkelaar

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