I have been spending a lot of time recently helping various law enforcement agencies evaluate and restructure their Internal Affairs (IA) units.  This is such a critical area for federal, state and local policing and public safety agencies.

Why a Department-Led Process is So Important

At Hillard Heintze, we encounter this regularly in our support to clients: organizations that are successful in reducing complaints against officers and holding personnel accountable for their behaviors have processes in place to involve rank-and-file staff in the receipt, response, investigation and adjudication of complaints.  Case in point?  The King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington.  When a police department handles its own formal Internal Affairs process, it can create and capture enormous organizational value – in great measure because it requires the department’s rank and file to step up and take on a leadership role in the day-to-day ethical decisions that need to be made.

Two Goals Typically Predominate

It is widely recognized by many within the law enforcement profession that the two main purposes for a department-run Internal Affairs process are to (1) set a professional standard for the organization and (2) to change bad behavior.  That’s a priority for many communities and their policing agencies – such as the Village of Schaumburg, Illinois and the Schaumburg Police Department. But, far too often, Internal Affairs programs are not well led and managed.

Procrastination is Common

Many town and village boards, police chiefs and senior command executives don’t have the expertise to evaluate the performance of their police department’s core Internal Affairs processes and don’t engage an independent review until a major incident occurs at which point leaders – and the press – start asking: “Why wasn’t this caught?  What was missed?  Are we or are we not following best practices in departmental governance, oversight and Internal Affairs?”

The Benefits Can Be Dramatic

Although there is some merit to this argument when budgets are tight, a well-designed, department-run Internal Affairs program is far more cost effective over time than having a poorly managed one or not having one at all.  Think of the liability and settlement costs when a preventable event takes a life or harms someone.  An in-house model helps the agency ensure that:

  1. The process is thorough, fair and objective for all parties involved – one that includes the protection of due process rights for the subject officer.
  2. The subject officer’s supervisor and chain of command are well informed about the details and circumstances of the incident.  This enables proper training and ongoing supervision of the subject officer and increases the likelihood that the officer will not engage in similar misconduct again.
  3. Command officers and supervisors are provided with the opportunity and ability to lead the organization.  The Internal Affairs process often reveals the proactive steps that could have been taken to identify behaviors of concern before a misconduct incident occurred or a citizen complained.
  4. It ensures that everyone in the department is aware of the organization’s high standards and what they must do to ensure they are met.

Good Cops Support Effective Systems

Don’t worry about internal resistance from officers.  Most members of a law enforcement agency support a department and its leaders when they know the internal affairs process is thorough, fair and objective – even when it leads to discipline.