HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Internal Affairs Units
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Internal affairs divisions are at the center of any examination of how police departments deal with human rights abuses committed by officers. It is alarming, therefore, that no outside review, including our own, has found the operations of internal affairs divisions in any of the major U.S. cities satisfactory.107 In each city we examined, internal affairs units conducted substandard investigations, sustained few allegations of excessive force, and failed to identify, or deal appropriately with, problem officers against whom repeated complaints had been filed. In many cases, sloppy procedures and an apparent bias in favor of fellow officers combine to guarantee that even the most brutal police avoid punishment for serious violations until committing an abuse that is so flagrant, so unavoidably embarrassing, that it cannot be ignored. Since oversight commissions and journalistic investigations have found that a small percentage of officers are responsible for large percentages of abuses, this failure to identify and punish repeat offenders is evidently at the hub of the problem.

The workings of internal affairs divisions are cloaked in excessive secrecy: information about their operations is only disclosed in incomplete and occasional fashion through investigative newspaper articles, books, and special commission studies on police departments, usually following major scandals. Otherwise, the public is prevented from participating in, or even knowing about, the way police officers patrolling their streets are dealt with when they commit abuses. While police representatives claim privacy issues are the reason for protecting information about investigations or disciplinary hearings, police departments also resist providing information even when relevant names and other identifying information are excised. Observers are left wondering why no information is disclosed to support the contention that the police are policing themselves.

The few occasions the public has been allowed a glimpse of the inner workings of police departments in the 1990s have given cause for alarm. All of the three commissions reviewing police misconduct in major cities since 1991 (in Boston, LosAngeles, and New York) found serious shortcomings in the way internal affairs divisions handled complaints. In other cities (including Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and New Orleans), investigative reporters and police abuse experts have also concluded that internal investigations were not being conducted properly.

After reviewing 250 internal-affairs division cases, the St. Clair Commission in Boston concluded that the division was sustaining an abnormally low number of complaints:

    Our investigation into the Department's handling of citizen complaints of police misconduct...was particularly troubling. Our study revealed an investigative and hearing process characterized by shoddy, halfhearted investigations, lengthy delays, and inadequate documentation and record-keeping. The present Internal Affairs process is unfairly skewed against those bringing a complaint. Given the Internal Affairs Division's ("IAD") failure to routinely provide thorough and timely investigations of alleged misconduct, and the fact that the department sustains less than 6% of complaints against officers, it is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of community residents we spoke to have little confidence in the department's ability or willingness to police itself....108

The Christopher Commission in Los Angeles found that the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the LAPD had sustained only 2 percent of the excessive force complaints and stated: "Our study indicates that there are significant problems with the initiation, investigation, and classification of complaints." It called the IAD investigations "unfairly skewed against the complainant."109

When Temple University police abuse expert Prof. James J. Fyfe reviewed Philadelphia's internal affairs unit's files, he found documents missing and the files generally in disarray. The Philadelphia Inquirer has published many in-depth investigative reports finding the Internal Affairs Division's work seriously flawed. In 1997, one monitor found Philadelphia's internal affairs files reflected thorough investigations, while attorneys who were allowed to view some internal affairs records as part of a court-monitored agreement with the city found "significant shortcomings in too many of the investigative files that we reviewed," and that IAD investigators were "justifying the officers' actions where an independent analysiswould find misconduct."110 When a San Francisco Examiner reporter reviewed the San Francisco Police Department's internal affairs unit's record on police shootings, he found that internal investigations were seriously botched, allowing officers to avoid disciplinary sanctions or prosecution.111 The Internal Affairs Division of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., is unable to account for case files it received from the now-abolished review board. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was able to obtain Internal Affairs Division files of that city's police force, after a lengthy delay, and reviewed the "contents list" in those files, it found that key items listed were missing.

In New Orleans, an attorney who represents victims of police abuse obtained internal affairs files and found them disorganized; she also found that the department was using an incorrect standard of proof in deciding whether to sustain complaints - the criminal "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard, instead of "preponderance of the evidence," which is the generally accepted standard for internal inquiries.112 The records showed a sustained rate of about 1 to 2 percent for excessive force complaints filed against officers by civilians, with the sustained rate for officer-reported complaints a bit higher.113

Although off-duty conduct is not the focus of this study, we note that in the cities examined, off-duty criminal or violent behavior, particularly abuses that take place while officers "moonlight" as security guards in their off-hours, are not sufficiently monitored by internal affairs units. Police officers who become involved in altercations, bar fights, or domestic violence escape appropriate scrutiny due to poor tracking by internal affairs units. This is particularly true when the incident takes place beyond the jurisdiction where the officer works. At the same time, off-duty police officers who commit abuses frequently enjoy the protection of colleagues from their own and other forces. As of this writing, police forces around the country are grappling with, and in some cases opposing, implementation of new federal legislation prohibiting anyone, including police officers, with misdemeanor or felony convictions relating to domestic violence from carrying a gun or ammunition, thus requiring desk duty, and, in practice, dismissal for those officers.114

107 An exception to entirely negative reviews of internal affairs units may be a November 1997 report by the new "Integrity and Accountability" officer in Philadelphia. While noting continuing deficiencies, the officer found the investigations thorough and unbiased. His positive assessment was not shared by community activists who also viewed internal affairs files, as part of an agreement between the city and civil rights groups. See Philadelphia chapter.

108 St. Clair Commission report, pp. iii-iv.

109 Christopher Commission report, p. 153.

110 Mark Fazlollah, "Police get a `C' for reviews of citizen complaints," Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1997.

111 Seth Rosenfeld, "S.F. pays big when cops shoot civilians," San Francisco Examiner, December 29, 1996; "Cops fail to police selves in shootings," San Francisco Examiner, December 30, 1996.

112 In practice, the standard of proof in disciplinary proceedings is somewhat higher than "preponderance of the evidence" because complainants usually will not prevail without a corroborating witness. Chevigny, Edge of the Knife, p. 94.

113 Human Rights Watch interview with attorney Mary Howell, New Orleans, October 1995. More recently, when Howell requested information regarding the standard of proof currently used by the internal affairs unit in December 1997, no answer to this question could be found in a stack of documents provided in December 1997, in response.

114 The Lautenberg Gun Ban, a rider to the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997, PL 104-208, passed in September 1996.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch