This blog is part of a series highlighting contributions the Hillard Heintze team made to Law Enforcement Best Practices: Lessons Learned from the Field, a guide to modern policing released in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Justice COPS Office. In the guide and this blog series, our law enforcement experts break down their key insights surrounding eight critical topics: community policing, de-escalation, crisis intervention, first-line supervisors, early intervention systems, internal affairs, recruitment and data systems.

It is important for law enforcement agencies to prevent, investigate and discipline misconduct to retain community trust and legitimacy. Effective community partnerships in crime prevention and control cannot be possible when the public may believe that law enforcement actions are inappropriate, unprofessional or illegal. That’s where Internal Affairs comes in.

This dynamic reminds me of Thomas Paine’s infamous words: “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.” An Internal Affairs function safeguards integrity – and ensures that the law enforcement agency is accountable to somebody.

What We Know About Internal Affairs

The Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) 2019 Law Enforcement Best Practices Guide provides needed scholarship regarding Internal Affairs. We know that law enforcement agencies typically follow one of three general models:

  • Internal controls (i.e., specific units), which is the most common
  • External controls (i.e., independent police commissions, independent monitors or civilian review boards)
  • A combination of internal and external controls

Even small-town police departments of 10 or fewer officers, which are the most common type of agency in the United States, need to build out their Internal Affairs functions. This may be a challenge given limited resources and part-time staffing, but it’s an essential aspect of operations.

Neither the COPS Guide contributors nor other law enforcement experts believe one model is best for every agency. However, the COPS Guide and other existing academia consistently find the following key points.

  • Few allegations of misconduct are sustained overall.
  • External review models experience higher rates of sustained allegations.
  • Many complaints of misconduct are never brought to the attention of Internal Affairs.
  • People of color make the majority of allegations.
  • Police officers experience frustrations with Internal Affairs processes.
  • Onerous and unpredictable Internal Affairs processes negatively affect police officer performance and morale.

This data presents a troubling picture of this department’s current functions and begs the question: how can we do better?

Where to Start

The 2019 COPS Guide identifies how police department leaders can improve their Internal Affairs programs:

  • Develop and publish a clear philosophy for Internal Affairs investigations
  • Improve the intake of complaints
  • Explicitly designate who will investigate complaints
  • Establish a timeline and benchmarks for conducting investigations and notifying interested parties
  • Designate a supervisor to review and adjudicate investigations
  • Incorporate an external review process to increase public transparency of internal affairs investigations
  • Keep corrective action consistent and transparent (i.e., seek to correct, not punish)
  • Offer alternative dispute resolution
  • Engage community members and increase transparency
  • Implement a disciplinary review panel when determining appropriate discipline

The 2019 COPS Guide and the steps outlined above are not the only resources at your disposal. A baseline resource for law enforcement leaders and agencies in implementing internal affairs practices, the 2015 COPS Office publication “Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” recommends adopting procedural justice as a guiding principle for internal discipline investigations. We suggest reading our blog on procedural versus restorative justice to gain a better understanding of the current discourse surrounding that approach.

Another valuable resource, the 2011 National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) “Police Discipline: A Case for Change,” models an internal discipline system that provides a “voice, respect and transparency,” which are the same values police personnel are expected to share with their public.

We encourage you to review these resources and reach out to us for help implementing the recommendations, to conduct an independent, third-party review of your agencies’ Internal Affairs philosophy, policy, procedures and practices or even a specific allegation investigation.