Issues for small police departments

Internal affairs: issues for small police departments

Sean F. Kelly

In the United States, most of what Americans know about the internal affairs of law enforcement agencies appears to come from the entertainment industry. Citizens generally believe that all police departments have a squad of officers assigned only to “police the police.” This may be tree for large agencies, but not for the vast majority of police departments in the country. Eighty-seven percent of police departments in the United States consist of fewer than 25 sworn officers. (1) Yet, society holds these small agencies accountable for the conduct of their officers via the same laws and judicial review process that it holds departments with hundreds or even thousands of officers. How does an agency with very few officers meet this obligation?

One such agency, the Durham, New Hampshire, Police Department, has found that a step-by-step approach can help the small police department navigate its way through the internal affairs process. Located on Great Bay and the Oyster River, Durham was settled in 1635 and incorporated 100 years later. (2) It has approximately 12,000 residents and serves as the host community to the main campus of the University of New Hampshire. During the school year, the population swells to nearly 25,000. The Durham Police Department has a rich and colorful history, including the first mention of the term police officer in a document dated in 1848. In the 1920s, the town created a yearly operating budget for the department of $100. The first police chief served for 27 years and received an annual salary of $50. Officers worked out of their homes until 1961 when the first floor of the Town Hall became police headquarters. In 1997, the department moved to a new police station and currently has 18 full-time sworn officers who provide complete 24-hour service to the community. With the evolution of the department into a modem CALEA-(the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc.) accredited agency, the issues surrounding internal affairs matters also have developed and currently take into account the disciplinary system; the internal affairs function; the mission, values, and ethics of the department; and the investigative process of a complaint.


Any disciplinary system employed by a police department should have at least two principles as a basis. First, discipline constitutes a form of training, with the primary purpose being to change aberrant behavior and enforce desirable behavior. Second, any disciplinary program should promote self-discipline, rather than imposed discipline. Perhaps a somewhat naive outlook, nonetheless, managers should believe that their employees always would act in the best interest of the agency and the community; they should be horribly disappointed if that belief proves incorrect.

If an agency uses a thorough process to select only the best-qualified people as police officers, supports its employees with well-written specific directives, and promotes and enforces its published values, then self-discipline likely will prevail. Moreover, such actions can reduce an agency’s need to employ its internal affairs investigations procedures and, ultimately, to impose sanctions.

No disciplinary system proves effective without being administered fairly and consistently. Evaluations offer an excellent tool for monitoring the overall performance of employees. They give an agency, through its supervisors, a method to formally record its expectations of employees. Evaluations provide supervisors with an opportunity to encourage desired behavior and to notify employees that they have noted the unacceptable behavior and that the agency will expect positive change. However, evaluations are useless unless supervisors enforce the conditions contained in them between reporting periods.


Nothing suggests that an agency has to have an officer dedicated solely to the internal affairs function. In fact, with the chemistry of a small agency, an objective internal affairs investigation may not be possible if only one officer handles every case. Many factors, such as personal bias, grudges, and friendships, may cloud the judgment of even the most well-intentioned investigator. In most small agencies, the task falls to an uninvolved superior officer or detective who, ultimately, reports to the chief.

What do internal affairs investigators try to find out? The truth and, sometimes, the truth hurts. They try to learn whether an officer has violated departmental policies or any laws. In some instances, they discover that the officer acted within a certain policy, but that the policy itself is flawed. In most cases involving the investigation of a violation of law, the investigator has a clearly defined statute, ordinance, or judicial review by which to measure an officer’s conduct. However, this may not be the case with departmental policy violations. Well-written, clearly defined policies and procedures represent the foundation of a successful police department. Agencies in the unfortunate position of defending themselves in a civil proceeding stemming from an internal affairs investigation often find that this comes from having been vague when preparing written directives for their officers.

What is conduct unbecoming to a police officer? If a policy is not specific, an agency may find that this “catch all” phrase does not. If an agency finds a certain behavior unacceptable, it should state it clearly in the policy. Agencies should specify exactly what their employees should not do and what they should do. Then, if an officer acts contrary to the policy, the chief has a “bright line” that measures the officer’s conduct and finds it faulty. This bright-line standard must apply to all policies, procedures, rules, and regulations before agencies can hold their officers truly accountable. Without rules specifying the conduct, any perceived shortfall resulting in charging an officer with conduct unbecoming will not be upheld. (3)

Due process requires that agencies provide their officers with guidance in their jobs that is not overly broad, vague, or ambiguous. (4) The courts have held that managers must tell their employees what they must do and what they are prohibited from doing. What then becomes difficult is walking the fine line between overregulation and allowing officers to exercise some discretion. Too much discretion and an agency finds that it cannot regulate behavior, promote professionalism, support integrity, or hold officers accountable when so-called violations occur.

It is not enough that the chief has a binder full of regulations; it is not enough to simply distribute these and expect officers to comply. To be effective, every agency member must have full access to agency policy manuals. All members must receive training and acknowledge their understanding of the regulations. Agencies must ensure that even the most junior member of the force can understand any policies and procedures and can use them as a comprehensive guide when attempting to accomplish a task without immediate supervision. Finally, every regulation must be legal, ethical, reasonable, and, most important, uniformly enforced. (5)


An agency should have a clearly stated mission that describes its ultimate goal. An agency’s employees should receive a copy of the mission statement, along with periodic training, and managers should review the statement to determine its continued validity. As an example, the mission of the Durham Police Department is to improve the quality of life by preserving the peace and safety of the community through the formation of partnerships, creating positive interaction between the public and the police while continuing to serve the unique needs of the Durham community.

What is important to an agency? What values are required of its officers? An agency should have a values statement that its employees can review. When selecting officers, agencies must remember that by the time individuals reach the age to become eligible for a position as an officer, they already have established their own set of values. Agencies cannot instill a values system in a new employe; they can only reinforce those preexisting values important to them. For example, the Durham Police Department’s values statement indicates that the agency consists of dedicated professionals who are committed to a team environment, creatively solving problems. The department believes in the value of human life; the courage to do what is right; the members’ accountability to themselves and to their community; the members’ fairness, compassion, and approachability in the performance of their duties; and continuous improvement.

Ethics is simply the choice between right and wrong. When a community swears in police officers, it has expressed its trust and faith that the officers always will make the right choice, regardless of the cost. A few sentences spoken with their right hands held in the air represent these officers giving their word to their community that its citizens can trust them with all that they love and hold dear. To act unethically violates that trust.

Where do ethics break down? What signs reveal police corruption in its infancy? Many, both in the profession and in other occupations, agree that law enforcement work is dangerous and officers are grossly underpaid. (6) This mantra, gone unchecked, can cause some officers to think that it is all right to accept half price meals or a free cup of coffee as long as no one expects something in return for this generosity. This seems benign, but where does it stop? Is this only a minor ethical dilemma better left to academicians? Or, is it the germ of corruption that each agency must address?

Simply stated, corruption in police work is the use of an officer’s sworn authority for personal gain. When corruption occurs, regardless of the extent, the community will measure the future of the agency against its response. An untimely or ineffective response will leave the community with a sour taste in its mouth that could take a generation, or more, to overcome.


It remains critical to the integrity of an agency that it accept and fully investigate all complaints. By accepting all types of complaints, regardless of the method of transmission, an agency tells its community that what citizens have to say is important, that the agency is dedicated to quality police service, that it is open to constructive criticism, and that it is committed to continuous improvement.

Once an agency receives a complaint, it should ensure the integrity of the complaint by sending a letter of receipt to any identifiable complainant. Agencies should inform complainants that they have assigned an investigator and that complainants should contact this person if any member of the department has contacted them in an effort to get them to retract the complaint or, worse, if anyone has threatened them in any way.

Subject Notification

Before beginning any internal affairs investigation, an agency should notify the officer involved in writing that it has received a complaint. Notification should include the nature of the complaint and the name and rank of the officer assigned to the investigation. The only exception to this would occur when such notification would jeopardize the investigation. (7)

Investigator Selection

An agency should select the investigator based on the allegations. In all cases, an agency should handle the matter at the lowest possible level. In small agencies, the line supervisor also may fill the position of second in command, limiting the chief’s choices. If a minor rule infraction, such as discourtesy or tardiness, is the nature of the complaint, then a line supervisor would prove an appropriate choice. However, if the complaint stems from a serious breach of conduct, such as an alleged crime, excessive force, bias/discrimination, or a gross ethics violation, then a command-level officer trained to conduct this type of sensitive investigation should undertake, or at least oversee, the matter.

In a small agency, the closeness of its members, or “family” atmosphere, makes a serious complaint extremely difficult to investigate. Finding a truly objective investigator within the agency may prove impossible. Regardless of an agency’s size, the emotional drain of a complex and difficult investigation can have long-term effects. In some cases, it may prove appropriate to invite an outside agency, such as the local sheriff’s department, state police, or district attorney’s office, to conduct the inquiry.

Investigation Type

After an agency receives a complaint, it must decide whether the alleged violation rises to the level of a crime or constitutes an administrative infraction of its policies. This decision can have far-reaching effects, so an agency must not take it lightly.

When deciding what path to take, an agency should consider the credibility of the complainant. Is the individual dissatisfied with the agency? Does the agency know that the person is credible? Has the involved officer arrested the person, a friend, or a family member? Does the complainant have a history of being less than truthful? Does the complainant know the consequences of filing a false report?

Without question, an agency has a need to protect itself and the community it serves from alleged rogue employees. An administrative proceeding can prove essential in that effort. However, to sacrifice a criminal investigation for the purpose of conducting an administrative proceeding could create a gross miscarriage of justice.

Regardless of the action taken, assigned investigators need to apply basic investigative skills and practices. They also must have ample time to complete their investigations. Small agencies that have few resources could find that other tasks normally assigned to these officers may suffer. For the betterment of the agency, however, it remains critical to allow investigators to fully develop the case. Investigators will have enough pressure from investigating “one of their own” without additional pressure from the chief demanding results.

Investigation Findings

Upon conclusion of an internal investigation, typically, one of four findings occurs for each allegation. Because the investigation may reveal that one or more of the allegations may have different conclusions, the investigator must have the flexibility to make a finding for each individual allegation, rather than for the entire complaint. Durham Police Department internal investigations allow conclusions for allegations as follows:

* Not sustained: Insufficient evidence exists to prove or disprove the complaint. This finding may be used for any complaint that has gone unresolved.

* Exonerated: The incident occurred, but the employee’s actions were justified, lawful, and proper.

* Unfounded: The complainant admits to making false allegations (e.g., the charges were false or the employee was not involved in the incident).

* Sustained: Sufficient evidence exists to indicate that the employee, in fact, did commit one or more of the alleged acts.

Once a finding occurs, however, work still remains. For the internal affairs process to be complete, the chief must notify the involved officer and the complainant of the finding. If applicable, the agency may take disciplinary action against the involved officer. Conversely, if a finding concludes that the complainant falsely accused the officer, the agency may file criminal complaints against that person. Many agencies choose not to take criminal action against complainants. They base this choice upon the belief that it would discourage citizens from coming forward and informing them of future violations. No right or wrong choice exists. Instead, most agencies base these choices not on written policy but on a case-by-case basis.


The need for all law enforcement agencies to hold members accountable for their actions and to impose high standards of conduct for their employees to consistently achieve constitutes one of the most important aspects of the profession. However, no agency is exempt from internal problems. While large agencies may have a separate unit or division to handle such matters, small agencies must cope with these incidents with the limited resources at their disposal. Often, this proves a daunting task, but even the smallest agency must have mechanisms in place to either prove the allegations false or to ferret out wrongdoing.

The Durham Police Department, a small agency in New Hampshire, uses an approach that includes well-written policies that clearly delineate how its officers should conduct themselves, mission and values statements that set forth the department’s goals and objectives, a strong code of ethics that every officer must learn and follow, and an investigative process that ensures a fair and impartial evaluation of any complaint. This approach can help any agency, regardless of size, handle internal affairs investigations in a sensitive and judicious manner to better serve its employees and the community that it protects.


(1) International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Research Center, Big Ideas for Smaller Police Departments, 2002.

(2) Information about Durham was retrieved on October 28, 2002, from

(3) Whisenhut v. Spradlin, 464 US 965 (1983).

(4) Captain Chuck Hemp, “Internal Affairs,” New Hampshire Police Standard and Training, February 2001.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Durham, New Hampshire, Police Department, “Internal Affairs,” Personnel and Administration Manual, February 2001.

Law Enforcement Code of Ethics

As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence and disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all persons to liberty, equality, and justice.

I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courage in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department. What I see or hear of a confidential nature or that which is confided in me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.

I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities, or friendships to influence my decision. With no compromise for criminals and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courageously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence, and never accepting gratuities.

I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of police service. I will constantly strive to achieve those objectives and ideals, dedicating myself to my chosen profession–law enforcement.

Source: International Association of Chiefs of Police Law Enforcement Code of Ethics

Functions of the Internal Affairs Process

* Protection of the public: The public has the right to expect efficient, fair, and impartial law enforcement; therefore, any misconduct by department personnel must be detected, investigated, and properly adjudicated to assure the maintenance of these qualities.

* Protection of the department: The department often is evaluated and judged by the actions of its individual members. It is imperative that the entire organization not be subjected to public censure because of the misconduct of one member. When the public knows that the department honestly and fairly investigates and adjudicates all allegations against its members, it is less likely that the public will find the need to raise a cry of indignation over alleged incidents of misconduct.

* Protection of the employee: Employees must be protected against false allegations of misconduct. Although being the subject of an investigation may be unpleasant or uncomfortable, the best protection for an employee is a complete and thorough investigation conducted in a timely manner that clearly and unequivocally supports the employee’s honesty and integrity.

* Removal of unfit personnel: Personnel who engage in serious acts of misconduct or who have demonstrated that they are unfit for law enforcement work must be removed for the protection of the public, the department, and fellow employees.

* Correction of procedural problems: The department constantly is seeking to improve its efficiency and its personnel. Occasionally, internal affairs investigations disclose faulty procedures that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

Source: Durham, New Hampshire, Police Department, Personnel and Administration Manual, February 2001.

Lieutenant Kelly serves with the Durham, New Hampshire, Police Department and currently is assigned as a leadership fellow at the DEA Academy.

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