I remember when that happened to me. I had only been a patrol sergeant for a year and a half when I got that call. Traditionally, the sergeants who got assigned to internal affairs (I.A.) were older and wiser types who were less apt to get the wool pulled over their eyes. But at the time, there were a couple of cagey deputies who seemed to be coated in Teflon. The brass just knew that these guys were dirty, but nothing would stick. As a former homicide detective and polygraphist, I had landed plenty of slippery crooks in prison, so as a left-handed compliment, I got the nod.
At least in my organization, I.A. sergeants weren’t pariahs. Everyone accepted that it was a duty and mostly respected that. And the truth was (and is) that 90-something percent of the complaints were bogus, so nearly everyone who got I.A.’ed wanted a top-notch investigation anyway. I learned a lot during my stint there. Let me share some of that with you.
The rank and file only want to be treated fairly and with respect. You can go into I.A., do a good job and come back out with all of your respect intact.
Here in California, cops have the Peace Officers Bill of Rights Act (POBRA). Maybe your state has something similar. Thank God this legislation was enacted in 1976, because before then, falsely accused cops could get crushed. These laws provide procedural rights for accused peace officers, including legal representation. To honor deputies’ rights, and to understand my rights, too, I set about learning all there was to know about them.
I discovered in my first few I.A.s that the union’s very experienced contract attorney must have trained my predecessors. As he sat with his clients in my formal interviews, he frequently interrupted me, questioned me, directed his clients not to answer and even tried answering for them. Think about that for a moment. If you’re falsely accused of something that’s big enough to go to I.A., wouldn’t you want to speak for yourself? But because of their unfamiliarity with the process and their nervousness, even innocent cops went along with it.
It’s great that cops have attorneys to consult with prior to being interviewed, but once this formal interview begins, it is the accused officers — not their attorneys — who are ordered to answer questions “truthfully, honestly and completely.” I corrected this problem by making the attorney sit outside my office before each interview while I’d meet with his client. Then, not asking any questions, I’d speak to the accused alone to instruct them and put them in the right state of mind.
During the polygraph pre-test interview, a good polygraphist spends time building rapport with examinees. He or she also uses subtle psychological persuasion techniques in such a way that, whether examinees plan on lying or telling the truth, they will run clearer polygraph charts: if you plan on lying, you’ll get more nervous about the issue, and if you plan on telling the truth, you’ll get more at ease. These techniques work outside of polygraph, too.
I would assure accused deputies that if the allegations were untrue, I would do all that I could, with their help, to prove it; but also, if there was any truth to the allegations, I was confident that I would prove that, too. The replies were almost always a great tell. Innocent cops often became bold and even angry, asserting that I’d better do a good job. Conversely, a more sheepish “I sure hope so” response often signaled a level of guilt.
There are four basic outcomes to I.A.s: sustained, not sustained/exonerated, not sustained/inconclusive and unfounded. Even when a case is totally unfounded, that’s usually difficult to prove. Oftentimes, there’s no conclusive evidence to prove that something did not happen (thus the saying, “You can’t prove the negative”). Body cameras have helped, but still. Unfortunately, “inconclusive” is all too often the best you can get. When that’s the case, in the closing of your narrative, your wording should be as strong and supportive of the accused as possible. You should read the accused’s entire personnel file, and if it documents a long and faithful history of quality performance, report that, and then clearly point out how the accusations would be out of character.
When there’s a sustained finding, accused cops always get a copy of the investigative report. When the accusations were not substantiated, my agency had a normal practice of not giving out report copies. But because these reports legally become part of the accused’s personnel record, if they ask for it, it has to be made available to them. I always told deputies about this, and of course, they always asked for a copy. Your report needs to be something that you’re proud to share with them, so make it your best work. This step alone will go a long way in fortifying your reputation among the rank and file.
I’m generally not a fan of ladder-climbers volunteering for the I.A. assignment. It’s definitely one of those posts that checks a big box for wannabe lieutenants, and even more so if they’re able to get a few notches on their gun while they’re there. You know that some guys just seem to be that way. On the other hand, I remember a guy in I.A. who was probably too protective of his fellow deputies. Even though you love our legion and have been in the same no-win situations, you still need to call balls and strikes like you see them. Your reputation and your department’s reputation depend on it.
Particularly with the proliferation of civilian oversight and independent law enforcement auditor offices too, the quality of your agency’s internal investigations needs to be the absolute best material that your organization can produce. These reports need to be so well-reasoned and indisputably thorough that they not only avoid embarrassment in future civil proceedings, but also they are a source of confidence and pride for your chief or sheriff and those to whom he or she reports. If you write your reports as if you knew they were to be published in the local newspaper, you’ll expose that auditor’s bias if he tries to disagree with you.
Here’s another good idea: do not allow your assignment to compartmentalize you. Remain a visible part of your organization. Set aside time to attend briefings and offer to demystify your job and the I.A. process. Ask staff for their tough questions and invite them to pick your brain about how to best avoid becoming the subject of an I.A.
I’ve heard it said that I.A.’s biggest wins are the agency’s worst defeats, but I don’t think like that. Most often, getting an I.A. is a really big deal in the lives of accused officers — a nerve-racking time in their careers that they’ll remember forever. It’s just a fact that most officers are falsely accused, so when you are able to prove that for them and for your agency, that’s a win to be very proud of. And while most sustained investigations simply involve good cops making significant but survivable mistakes, when we are able to rid our workplaces of truly dirty cops, I call that a great win for all of us and for our communities, too.
So that brings me back to those two deputies that I mentioned in my opening paragraph. What happened to them, you ask? Believing that just like good cops, truly dirty cops’ normal work product should show the evidence of their ways, I conducted historical background checks on both of them. I also started secretly reading all of their daily crime reports. I discovered that one of them had skated on an off-duty assault and battery incident. I obtained the reports from the investigating agency, reinvestigated the case, proved it and got him a felony conviction in a jury trial. So much for him.
For the other deputy, within a few months, I read a line in one of his misdemeanor crime reports that sounded a little suspicious. It was something that was hardly worth lying about, and if he did, it would be mostly just to cut some corners and avoid a little work. It turned out that that was exactly what he did, and I proved it. Out the door he went, too.
While I was in I.A., I was able to get rid of a few more deserving employees, and I also authored a few officer-involved shooting administrative reviews that successfully protected my county in civil litigation. It wasn’t the most fun job I ever had, but I did the best job I could.
The rank and file only want to be treated fairly and with respect. You can go into I.A., do a good job and come back out with all of your respect intact … and perhaps even more. One of my proudest accomplishments in my career was in the same year I left I.A.: I was nominated for union president and then won that post.
If you are a chief or sheriff, or if you have your chief’s or sheriff’s ear, I encourage you to pursue a top-to-bottom review of your agency’s I.A. processes and that unit’s credibility with the rank and file, and perhaps even its reputation in your regional civil justice system. Find out if yours is the agency that attorneys are more apt to sue, or not. This job just keeps getting harder, so if you’re doing things right, your I.A. unit should be your capable guardian.
As seen in the April 2021 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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