Internal Affairs Community of Practice:
A Novel Approach to Advancing Community
In police agencies throughout the United States, Internal Affairs units are responsible for helping to ensure police ethics and integrity within their respective agencies by investigating officer conduct, particularly citizen complaints of officer misconduct. The presence and competent use of Internal Affairs units is one of the most important means of ensuring the agency’s adherence to community policing principles and sustaining community trust. Trust is an underpinning of community policing to such a degree that without a local public belief that an agency will resolve complaints of misconduct properly, the agency will likely engender public conflict, not partnership.
The COPS Office, through Cooperative Agreement No. 2003-HS-WX-K040 with the Los Angeles Police Department, entitled “Internal Affairs Network,” funded the first-ever ongoing major cities Internal Affairs network or community of practice. Communities of practice are organizational structures that network individuals across traditional jurisdictional agencies or disciplines that share a common policy and professional development purpose. The project created a unique opportunity for major jurisdiction law enforcement agencies to meet on an ongoing basis to share information and approaches in internal affairs work and share the results of this effort with other agencies. In a national Internal Affairs conference supported by the cooperative agreement, Internal Affairs executives, leaders of civilian oversight boards, academics, and other experts sought to find common best practices to implement in Internal Affairs units nationally, ultimately to promote public trust in the police and advance community policing. But a curious thing happened: they discovered that despite their best efforts early on to agree on national best practices, they found a remarkable disagreement. Even in some of the most fundamental domains, such as the definition of core terms like “complaint,” the procedure for receiving a complaint—even who should be allowed to make a complaint—discussion was more contentious than decisive. This was an unexpected result because most believed going into the conference that the practices were likely to be common—perhaps with variants and a few idiosyncratic policies—but generally capable of being harmonized into a coherent global agreement.
To resolve the stall, conferees appointed three small teams to focus on the areas the group agreed were crucial: the processes of complaint intake, investigation, and adjudication. With smaller teams focused on just one topic each, progress ensued. Meeting in different venues and times, each team produced a tentative report. Two more sessions of a larger group helped refine the report and points of agreement and, in the final executive session, the “Big 12”1 decided what to endorse and what the final report would include.2
One of the most interesting features of the final report was that it did not create a body of best practices. Instead, a compendium of suggested guidelines emerged as the product needed by the Internal Affairs community at this time. What made this so interesting was the answer to the question, “Why was a list of best practices not produced after so much research and debate?”The question arose as one of the central concerns of the Big 12 in their final session. After all, gatherings of homicide investigators or narcotics agents agree on long lists of best practices without much debate. What makes Internal Affairs different? The report responds:
“…because IA investigates police officers, a unique set of challenges is created that do not exist in typical criminal investigations. These challenges are not solved with technical solutions because the challenges are not merely technical. The challenges include the dynamics of state and local laws, employment rights, collective bargaining agreements, community relationships and expectations, and organizational and political cultures.” 3
Best practices arise in typical criminal investigations because their problems are primarily technical, and debate over technical matters are resolved by testing competing theories against standards and selecting the best solution. But in Internal Affairs investigations—indeed in the entire Internal Affairs enterprise—union contracts, local laws, community demands on police chiefs, etc., often directly affect everything from how interviews of officers are conducted to the very definition of what a “complaint” is and under what conditions it will be accepted. That is why the Big 12’s final product was a set of guidelines, not fixed practices: the factors influencing Internal Affairs systems vary as greatly as their political milieu.
This project is the first at a national level to advance community policing through the cultivation of Internal Affairs. As the Big 12’s report is digested by policymakers throughout the country and its implications are more widely known, some will likely implement its guidelines and improve local community-police trust. As others follow, this approach to community policing has great potential not only to affect police-community relations, but also to show nationally that it is possible to create Internal Affairs systems worthy of the public’s trust even amidst a remarkable diversity of dynamic factors.
- 1 The Big 12 consisted of the following agencies in addition to the Los Angeles Police Department (the grant project director): the Los Angeles County Sheriff and the municipal police departments of Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Miami-Dade, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. Part of purpose of the conference was to create a community of practice among the Big 12 and to perpetuate discussions among them through videoconferencing after the in-person sessions were complete.
- 2The final report, “Internal Affairs Guidelines: Proceedings from a Community of Practice,” is undergoing COPS approval and will be available on the COPS web site when completed.
- 3 “Internal Affairs Guidelines: Proceedings From a Community of Practice”, pg. 7