Author: Dr. Rick Austin, Police Chief- Milton PD
The internal affairs (IA) function within a police agency is vitally important in maintaining community trust. A robust IA framework can not only help the department root out inappropriate behaviors that fracture legitimacy, but it also provides a fair and equitable investigatory process for employees. It can also serve to reduce the department’s liability and works to maintain a high level of professional standards. Conversely, having a weak internal affairs function can create an unhealthy policing culture, fracture citizens’ trust, and substantially increase the department’s likelihood of being successfully sued. But even when departments strive to have a strong professional standards unit, there are numerous pitfalls that may be encountered. However, with adequate preparation, policy development, and resource allocation, most of these pitfalls may be avoided or, at least, significantly mitigated.
Selecting IA Investigators
The internal affairs function within a police agency, according to best practices, should have dedicated personnel who are specifically trained for this highly specialized task. The rank of the individuals who fulfill this role certainly may vary by agency, however, utilizing personnel in this position with supervisory rank or command rank is highly advisable. Also, while it may seem pragmatic to assign this responsibility to someone within the criminal investigations function, assigning personnel with current roles in criminal investigations is ill-advised. The reason for this is that, unfortunately, sometimes, an officer may be accused of a policy violation that also constitutes a crime. When being interviewed in an administrative setting, employees may legally be compelled to speak with internal affairs investigators or face disciplinary action, including termination. However, as with any citizen, he or she may refuse to speak with criminal investigators. If the internal affairs investigator serves in a dual role in criminal and internal investigations, this may cause obvious prosecutorial problems with any criminal allegations involved in the investigation. If the department does not have enough personnel to assign internal affairs to an investigator outside of criminal investigations with the skill set needed to conduct interviews and document thorough investigations, consider an agreement with a neighboring agency to share resources for conducting internal investigations. Above all, remember that according to best practices, the internal affairs function is a direct representative
of the office of the chief. Choose investigators who are professional, have no significant disciplinary problems, and have the interpersonal skills to gain both employees’ and citizens’ trust. The trust and legitimacy of the department often hinge on the effectiveness of this vital role. Selecting personnel who are not a good fit for IA is a common and avoidable pitfall.
There are numerous highly regarded national-level internal affairs investigator training programs available. Chief executives are encouraged to review the options carefully and allocate substantial resources in this area to ensure that internal affairs investigators are well-trained to meet the needs of this challenging, high liability role, even if it is an ancillary duty. As alluded to above, there are several unique legal nuances in internal affairs investigations that investigators must thoroughly understand. If these legal requirements are not met, this could become very problematic for the department.
Also, once IA investigators are trained, chief executives should strongly consider providing opportunities for them to become involved in state and national internal affairs investigators associations so that they may develop a network of professionals with whom to collaborate. Often, departments have only one IA investigator, and they cannot discuss cases internally, of course. Having other IA professionals to reach out to in order to assist with decision-making in challenging cases can be an invaluable resource. Having investigators “on an island” who are not well-trained for internal investigations is another common pitfall that may be easily avoided with appropriate planning and resource allocation.
Acceptance of Complaints
Another common snare in the internal affairs function lies in the means by which the department receives complaints. While it is understandable that departments would have a vested interest in discouraging false complaints against employees, such tight restrictions as having citizens print and write out an affidavit detailing the allegation and having a notarization requirement are all too common. Some departmental IA webpages or complaint forms even threaten prosecution if a complaint is proven false. This type of approach certainly does not promote trust and transparency, especially among individuals who already may be distrustful of the police. A complex citizen complaint reporting process may also serve to keep negative officer behaviors from coming to light, thus increasing the department’s liability.
Departments are encouraged to accept complaints from any source (yes, even anonymously) so that they may be thoroughly investigated. Many chiefs have discovered the hard way that when citizens do not have a clear avenue for redress of their complaints through a well-defined internal aaffairs process, they will often find other avenues such as network media, social media, or attorneys. Of course, sometimes this will occur anyway. However, relaying to citizens in a public forum that a complaint is being thoroughly investigated and any policy violations will be addressed accordingly can go a long way in maintaining trust within the community. No chief executive wants to be blindsided with a complaint, especially one with widespread implications. Ensuring that the department has a clearly defined and well-publicized internal affairs process that accepts complaint information from a variety of sources will help chiefs avoid this common pitfall.
Internal IA Training and Responsibilities
While the internal affairs process is typically set in policy with all employees signing off on it, the process often remains a mystery to officers, ironically, especially to those who rarely receive complaints. Internally, IA is too often viewed as a strictly punitive function to be avoided whenever possible. However, a well-functioning IA process leans heavily on training outcomes for more procedurally-based mistakes. Certainly, egregious complaints that are sustained need to be dealt with swiftly and proportionally. However, when officers understand that relatively minor errors that cause little harm will be dealt with fairly and with a focus on appropriate training, they can feel more at ease with the process and see it for what it is; an essential and necessary function within the agency. This approach can also be reinforced with regular roll call or other departmental training.
Making the IA policy a part of officers’ annual training can also reinforce this. Discussing the internal affairs process with officers when they are in a non-threatening environment will help them understand the process thoroughly. It may also reduce officer stress should they be called into an investigation. Such an approach can help avoid this internally-driven pitfall.
Lack of Transparency
The final pitfall discussed herein deals with transparency when the department discovers that an egregious policy violation has occurred, especially one that violates the public trust.
Conventional wisdom was to refrain from sharing such a finding with the public until the entire investigation was complete and then perhaps only reveal the information under formal request.
While perhaps counterintuitive, agencies that are proactive in communicating serious failures can actually maintain, if not increase, trust within the community.
Most reasonable citizens realize that police departments must hire from fallible humans and that no hiring process is absolutely failsafe at screening out potential problem employees. However, citizens are typically interested in how the department handles such a breach of trust. Owning the situation and communicating that the behavior is clearly not in line with the department’s mission and values can go a long way in maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Offering concrete steps forward to ensure the act does not occur again is also vital in restoring trust in the department. Avoidance in these cases often does not bode well for chief executives. While uncomfortable, being transparent in these difficult situations is of paramount importance in moving the agency forward. Be sure to avoid this common pitfall.
It is incumbent upon chief executives to be the gatekeepers of ethical and professional policing. Police chiefs must ensure that they allocate adequate resources toward the internal affairs function and select well-trained and well-qualified investigators who have both the investigatory and interpersonal skills to promote and maintain internal and external trust.
Departments must also ensure citizens have a clear and straightforward means by which to voice complaints and quickly acknowledge when shortcomings or egregious acts occur. By avoiding these common pitfalls within the internal affairs function, the department may maintain the trust and legitimacy that they work so hard to achieve each day within the communities they serve.
Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967).
Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 115 (1966).
Stephens, D.W. (2011). Police discipline: A case for change. U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
Graham v. Conner, 490 U. S. 386 (1989)
Stephens, D. W. Police Discipline: A Case for Change. U. S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice https://nij.ojp.gov/library/publications/police-discipline-case-change (2011).
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, “Directive 100 – 104: Discipline Philosophy”, Interactive Directives Guide, Charlotte, N.C.: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, 2001.
Dr. Rich Austin has been the Chief of the Milton Police Department in north Fulton County since January 2017. Prior to that, he retired as a captain from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department where he held various assignments during his 25+ year career, including assignments as an internal affairs investigative sergeant and internal affairs commander. He is also the former Training Director for the North Carolina Internal Affairs Investigators Association. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.