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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

April 2022 | Volume 15 | Issue 4

Unfortunately, the public’s trust in the high ethical standards of an entire law enforcement agency can be undermined by the misconduct of just one officer. And as recent events have made abundantly clear, the public will call for, and rightfully demand, an immediate investigation into all violations, not just the most egregious.

A thorough and timely investigation by the Internal Affairs function of the law enforcement agency is necessary to reassure the community that their local, state, or tribal police department is dedicated to rooting out unethical behavior.

And no matter the gravity of the charge, whether discourteous behavior or excessive use of force, the complaint must be thoroughly and vigorously investigated, to maintain not only the support of the community but the morale of the agency’s staff. Moreover, it should be done in a way that both the complainant and the officer feel is fair.

In an effort to increase accountability and improve the process of responding to complaints made against New York State’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Department (MTAPD) and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel (B&T) Authority, the Office of the MTA Inspector General (OIG) developed a checklist based on a survey of industry best practices.

Though the document itself is proprietary, the method by which it was created can be of interest to law enforcement agencies of all types and sizes.

The industry best practices the document cites were mostly drawn from two sources: a Best Practices Guide (Chiefs Best Practices) published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) for smaller police departments, and Building Trust Between the Police and the Citizens They Serve, a publication of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office). They were also based on the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) standards.

OIG’s checklist is divided into five main categories: Policies and Procedures; Transparency: Informing the Public; Organization and Staffing; Performance Standards and Training; and Intake Activities. It covers all stages of the complaint management process:

  • Establishing policies and procedures
  • Receipt and initial processing of the complaint
  • Assigning the appropriate party for follow-up
  • Investigation: the fact-finding phase
  • Determining the appropriate disposition based on the investigator’s conclusion about the validity of the allegation
  • Reporting the conclusion to the appropriate party for action
  • Determining the appropriate disposition: the investigator’s conclusion about the validity of each allegation after evaluating the available evidence
  • Reporting the conclusion to the appropriate party for action
  • Implementing any necessary corrective action(s) or remedial measures
  • Communicating with the Complainant and the Subject Officer
  • Documenting, analyzing, and tracking complaints
  • Reporting to management and the public about this process.

The industry best practices that OIG used as standards include the following:

  • Establish policies and procedures about the administration and investigation of complaints and strictly enforce them.
  • Create a formalized, written policy that describes each step of the internal investigation.
  • Determine whether there are guidelines in collective bargaining agreements that must be met.
  • Ensure that citizens and employees alike are aware that a complaint process exists, know how to use it, and understand how the agency processes and investigates complaints.
  • Publicize this information through the media, the agency’s web site, community meetings, and publications in languages spoken in the community.
  • Make all complaints publicly accessible at the end of every year on the department’s web site and in the annual report.
  • Formalize procedures for communicating with an officer who is the subject of a complaint when an allegation might lead to criminal charges to protect both the officer’s constitutional rights and the agency’s interests.
  • Employ an early intervention system to readily detect multiple complaints about an officer’s or squad’s misconduct. Such a system increases management’s ability to identify an employee in need of assistance, retraining, or managerial intervention.

By comparing MTAPD’s policies and procedures to these and other recommended practices, the OIG identified opportunities for the agency to improve the way in which it receives, investigates, and reports on complaints from transit riders and other members of the public.

A similar tool based on the resources listed below can be transformative for law enforcement executives in local, state, and tribal agencies who are looking to improve their complaint management process, address misconduct in a timely and just manner, and maintain community trust.

Additional resources:

Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
COPS Office

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