Overcoming organizational mistrust in the IA unit

All the players in the process can build trust between the IA function and those who are affected by it


The internal affairs (IA) function — the investigation of alleged misconduct by employees — is an integral part of department management in any law enforcement organization. Whether the office conducting an employee investigation is called Internal Affairs, Office of Professional Standards, or Office of Professional Responsibility, it serves management and the organization as a tool to maintain and strengthen professional conduct. 

The investigation of allegations of wrongdoing helps to maintain professional conduct in an organization, which protects the department and the employees within it. 

The complete and unbiased investigation of any allegation ensures fairness and reduces the potential for misunderstanding the IA mission. 

Misunderstood and Misused
Sometimes, despite professional, fair, and unbiased employee investigations, the IA function can be misunderstood. A complete and honest internal investigation may be perceived as being biased depending upon leadership support and departmental culture. 

Just as strong leadership and an impartial investigation can reduce the possibility of misunderstanding, the attitudes and actions of leaders can also taint IA actions and create an environment of suspicion, distrust, and intimidation. Strong, fair, and impartial leadership is essential to create an IA activity that is trusted throughout an organization. 

Leaders are not alone in generating attitudes and perceptions of the internal investigative function. Compounding the complexities of the IA function is the IA process, which includes others who may affect the perception of internal affairs. Employees — along with many others — may have competing attitudes, perceptions, and motivations. 

Internal affairs investigators, community and political leaders, union representatives, the media, department leaders, the rank and file officers, and the citizens the organization serves are all part of the IA process. Each can influence the perception of the internal affairs function. An internal affairs investigation may be perceived unfavorably because of negative attitudes among the players in the process even when IA actions are unbiased, just, and void of undue influence.

Conflicting Interests
The personal agendas of some participants may conflict with the best interests of the department. These agendas may adversely affect employee spirit and create a negative perception of the internal affairs function.

The internal affairs function can be affected simply because of diverse interests. 

•    Leaders may want to avoid — or ignore — tough issues that may complicate management of the organization 
•    Offending employees may not admit wrongdoing, and as their defense they attack the integrity of the internal affairs investigation
•    Employees may feel powerless against management, and the community may feel betrayed by politicians who act in their own self-interest
•    Unions may be deceived by management, management may be frustrated by union officials — both, along with the rank and file, may be ridiculed in the media and criticized by the citizens they serve
•    An insensitive investigator may create a sense of unfairness by unprofessional behavior 

These conflicting interests may cause players in the process to focus resentment on the internal affairs function. To counteract these possible negative perceptions, department leaders have the power to positively affect the department culture and perceptions of others involved in the process. All players in the process have the potential to build trust between the IA function and those who are affected by it. 

Supportive management, thoughtful selection of IA employees, and continuing professional education can ensure an IA function that serves the best interests of the department, its employees, and the community.

About the author

John F. Hein is an adjunct instructor of criminal justice for the American Public University System and a retired executive of the former U.S. Customs Service.  Hein served 35 years in civilian and military security and law enforcement agencies.  He is a member of ASIS International, an association of security professionals, and is a Certified Protection Professional (CPP).  Hein supported, supervised or conducted employee internal investigations for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, then for the former U.S. Customs Service, Office of Internal Affairs, and, as a reservist, the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He was a deputy sheriff prior to his service as a federal criminal investigator. He is the author of Inside Internal Affairs: An In-Depth Look at the People, Process and Politics, published by Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc.

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