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Internal affairs in the small agency.

Internal affairs cases cover a wide range of charges, from rudeness to full-blown criminal behavior. Complaints can come from citizens or from department personnel and might be made anonymously, privately, or even publicly through the media. It is the police executive's responsibility first to prevent conduct that might warrant complaints and, second, to ensure that all such complaints receive appropriate, timely attention and disposition.

Department administrators with sufficient personnel can afford to detail people to internal affairs units or divisions that, with some oversight and direction, deal solely with charges of misconduct. Smaller agencies, however, often do not have the resources to dedicate officers exclusively to internal affairs cases and must handle these delicate matters differently.


The first and most critical step a police executive in any size department must take is to establish expectations of conduct. Every employee, both sworn and civilian, must understand that the organization will not tolerate unprofessional conduct and that appropriate action will be taken when it is uncovered.

As a positive step in this process, the agency's executive should issue a clear code of conduct accompanied by policies and procedures that articulate guidelines for conducting police business. Equally important, the executive must make sure that employees adhere to the code. It is better to prevent unprofessional conduct than to deal with it after the fact.

Even with such preventive measures in place, allegations of breaches of the code will be made from time to time. In preparation, an internal investigation policy should be in place. Departments without one can obtain a model policy from such organizations as the International Association of Chiefs of Police or the National Sheriffs Association or from another police agency. The model then should be tailored to the department's particular needs. An internal investigation policy should address a number of key issues, including:

* Who can file complaints

* How citizens register complaints

* How anonymous complaints will be accepted

* What rights employees have

* What distinguishes criminal from administrative investigations

* How to handle complaints prior to a formal investigation

* When to notify the chief executive

* How to conduct an internal affairs investigation

* When to close an investigation

* How and when to notify the complainant of the outcome.

It is important that employees understand investigative policies and procedures, and one good way to educate them is to get input from a cross-section of employees in adapting the model policy. Getting input, however, does not make this a matter for collective bargaining; management should exercise its prerogative to establish ethical standards and professional expectations.


When faced with accusations of inappropriate, unprofessional, or illegal conduct within the department, the executive of a small agency has several choices for how to proceed: conduct the investigation personally, assign it to the accused employee's supervisor, or ask another agency to investigate. The best choice depends on the circumstances and personnel involved.

Executive Investigates

The executive of a small agency wears many hats and might find it necessary to don the hat of an internal affairs investigator. In this case, the executive would investigate the allegations and then determine the appropriate disposition. Executives who go this route will need to focus on the investigation to the exclusion of some routine duties in order to resolve the matter in a timely fashion.

However, investigation by the executive has some drawbacks. First, the day-to-day demands of running the agency might make it impossible to devote sufficient time to the case. Second, because the agency head will determine the validity of the complaint and impose any necessary penalties, the parties to the case might question the impartiality of the process. An executive should give careful consideration to scheduling and time constraints, as well as to the perception of fairness and impartiality, before assuming personal responsibility for conducting an internal affairs investigation.

Employee's Supervisor Investigates

A second approach is to assign the accused employee's supervisor to do the investigation. This approach works best when coupled with a policy in which the first step of the complaint process involves an attempt to resolve the allegation by the complainant, the employee, and the first-line supervisor. Even if a resolution cannot be achieved informally, this approach gives the supervisor insight into the case and how the subordinate and complainant interact.

Upon completing the investigation, the supervisor forwards the case information with a recommended finding to the chief executive, who makes the final determination. Depending on the size and structure of the agency, the material can be forwarded through the chain of command or directly to the head of the agency. In most small agencies, the command structure is rather flat, allowing recommendations to go straight to the top.

In small agencies, supervisors and subordinates often work very closely. This can give the appearance of a lack of impartiality when a supervisor conducts an investigation. Sometimes supervisors and subordinates also belong to the same union, which can place supervisors in a difficult position when investigating a fellow union member. All of these factors should be weighed when considering whether to assign a supervisor to investigate a complaint against a subordinate.

Outside Agency Investigates

At times, the best approach will be to have another law enforcement agency investigate internal affairs cases. A small department might not have the resources to dedicate to a complex investigation, or criminal charges might be so serious that the small department feels it could not reasonably conduct a fair inquiry. Often, the state police will take on criminal complaints but will not handle simple misconduct or rules violation cases. Neighboring local agencies can make arrangements to handle one another's noncriminal complaints to fill this gap if necessary.

Calling on the assistance of an outside agency addresses some of the concerns raised by having executives or supervisors investigate complaints. The investigator is impartial, the judge (executive) does not conduct the inquiry, and the executive can attend to the day-to-day operations of the agency.

This approach, however, might be viewed as a tacit admission that the department cannot manage its own affairs. Such a perception is not healthy for a department's morale or public image. If departments plan to ask an outside agency to handle a case or a category of cases, care should be taken to prevent such negative perceptions by publicizing the department's policy and the reasons behind it long before a complaint arises.

In addition, unless the complaint involves a very serious criminal matter, the outside investigating agency will balance this case against its other demands for service and, as a result, might not provide the promptness or quality of investigation desired. These drawbacks must be weighed against the need for impartiality and timely resolution.


No matter the investigative option chosen, the chief executive must maintain a high quality of internal affairs investigations. Quality investigations contain a number of components. For example, investigators should conduct complete interviews of all parties (employees, complainants, and witnesses) and document those interviews clearly and thoroughly. They also should review any physical evidence, past behavior relevant to the incident, and other documentation, such as dispatch tapes, police reports, tickets, or audio/videotapes, that might impact the investigation.

Other factors might influence the quality of internal affairs investigations. Some states have codified an internal affairs process that law enforcement agencies must follow. In addition, some agencies are governed by contractual obligations with a police officers' union. If such legislation or contracts exist, executives should examine them carefully - preferably with the assistance of legal counsel - to ensure that the department's policies meet the applicable regulations. Moreover, the chief executive should ensure that the actual process of investigation complies with the department's policies.

Another important aspect of a high-quality internal affairs process is timely resolution of complaints. Prompt investigation and disposition of cases maintains the integrity of the department by addressing the problem (real or perceived), helping satisfy the complainant's concerns, allowing the accused employee to return quickly to focusing on the job rather than the investigation, and boosting the department's morale.


Executives must not overlook the impact of the internal affairs process on the morale of the department and the good will of the citizenry. Often, officers working in small organizations have little understanding of the role and value of internal affairs or the citizen complaint process simply because they have never been named in a complaint. The intimacy of a small community and police department might magnify the strain caused when complaints are lodged against police employees.

It is important, therefore, for the chief executive to explain the internal affairs process and its value to both the department and the community to alleviate some of the mystery when complaints are filed. One way to dispel rumors and address concerns within the department is to have a general department meeting to explain the policy and process prior to their implementation. Periodic refreshers can serve to remind employees of how the internal affairs process works, what regulations govern it, and how it protects the employees as well as the complainants. No one likes to be investigated, but employees will feel much better if they understand the process and trust the outcomes will be fair.


The community must have the same level of trust in the process as the employees do, for two reasons. First, they must feel that the department will listen to valid concerns and police itself appropriately. This will help maintain a constructive relationship between the department and the community. Second, community members must believe that the chief executive will be fair to the department's employees, who often are their friends and neighbors. To navigate the minefields of small town politics successfully, police executives must not be perceived as deaf to the community's concerns or biased against any group of employees.

Police executives should be open and honest with the community and government officials. They should explain that the internal affairs policy has been established to maintain a high ethical standard, describe the general provisions of the policy, and show citizens how to access the complaint mechanism. The purpose is not to solicit complaints about the department, but to let citizens know that if problems arise, the department will take their concerns seriously.


In the final analysis, local law enforcement agencies benefit most from taking an aggressive, proactive approach to addressing the concerns of citizens and employees by having a well-written and fully enforced internal affairs policy. Chief executives of small departments have several investigative options open to them.

Whether they choose to handle cases themselves, assign them to first-line supervisors within the department, or ask for outside assistance, they must strive for fair and impartial investigation and disposition of complaints. By keeping employees and the community informed, executives can minimize confusion and misperceptions among all parties involved.

Kevin M. Courtney

Mr. Courtney is director of the Big Rapids, Michigan, Department of Public Safety.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Focus on Administration
Author:Courtney, Kevin M.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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