Law enforcement in the United States of America has long been regarded as a noble profession but the admiration of many citizens is slowly diminishing. This change may be attributed to increased publicity of officers involved in less than stellar or criminal acts. Many believe that law enforcement officers must meet a higher standard, but almost daily, Americans hear the stories of officers failing to achieve the most basic standards. What happens when an officer acts unprofessionally or commits a criminal act varies between thousands of law enforcement agencies. In America, there is no national standard or expectations governing internal policy violations or criminal investigations concerning officer’s conduct. Who should be responsible for investigating officer misconduct?

Most law enforcement agencies have a unit or employee responsible for investigating officer misconduct, but the ability of the agency to conduct internal investigations varies greatly. There are many issues to consider when conducting an internal investigation that differs from criminal investigations. To be a formidable internal affairs investigator requires specialized training that is expensive and difficult to locate. Considering human resources rules and labor laws is vital when conducting internal investigations to avoid violating workers’ rights. At smaller agencies, having the resources required to investigate allegations of officer misconduct may be insufficient. Having the staffing required who have received training to conduct investigations varies from agency to agency. Internal investigations often consume valuable work hours that agencies struggling with staffing levels do not have. Agency culture that hampers internal investigations is a factor in many departments. There are still agency heads who choose to overlook officer misconduct. Having a culture that dissuades citizens’ complaints is apparent in other departments. 

The public expects their voice to carry, and action taken on the issues they bring to a department. When citizens make complaints concerning officer misconduct, they have many expectations. They expect the complaint process to be open, easy, and non-threatening. Citizens do not want to be threatened or belittled during the complaint process. Once a complaint is submitted, a different set of expectations comes into play. After making a complaint against an officer, citizens expect to be free of retaliation and harassment. In my experience, communication is another factor high on the list of expectations of the public after making a complaint. I believe most citizens want a fair, equitable investigation into their allegations. Complainants do not wish to feel brushed aside or unimportant. Believing a proper investigation occurred makes accepting an outcome that differs from their expectations easier for many citizens.

Common pitfalls of investigating officer misconduct allegations can be avoided by following simple guidelines. An agency should never use its own personnel to investigate violations of criminal law by its officers. Calling on qualified outside agencies to conduct criminal investigations builds transparency and trust in the public. Having independent agency personnel conduct the criminal investigation diminishes the ability of the home agency to influence the investigation. The officer’s department personnel should investigate all claims of policy or procedural violations. The accused officer’s department personnel should be familiar with the policy and practice of the agency and be in a better position to determine if any violation occurred. Following the unity of command principle, policy violations should be investigated by the accused officer’s direct supervisor. All investigations concerning officer misconduct, or an alleged criminal act should be scrutinized by the accused’s chain of command once complete. Mandating the review provides for a system of checks and balances. Having this review should eliminate any positive or negative bias and help build community trust. 

To stop the erosion of the reputation of law enforcement in America, law enforcement agencies must prioritize taking and investigating citizens’ complaints.  If any agency falls short, that failure affects all officers. Public trust is enhanced when complaints of officer misconduct or criminal violations are received and investigated without bias or interference. All law enforcement agencies must evaluate their ability, resources, and culture regarding investigations into officer misconduct. Applying some basic rules and procedures goes a long way to avoiding problems when deciding who should investigate officer misconduct.