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When good employees do stupid things

By Street Survival Seminar Instructors Dave Smith and Sgt. Betsy Brantner-Smith

How much time does your department spend on internal affairs investigations?

Every agency has a few employees who are "bad news bears;" those officers who spend more time in the chief's office than they do out on patrol. As we continually work to professionalize law enforcement, we have less and less tolerance for bad behavior, both on and off duty, and inappropriate sexual escapades, drunk driving, and other legal, moral and policy violations that used to be "swept under the rug" are now front page news when committed by a cop.

What happens when an otherwise good employee commits an act of stupidity that lands him or her right in the middle of a serious investigation? Any and all allegations of misconduct should be handled swiftly and fairly, and bad behavior should never be tolerated or ignored but as administrators, we often get focused on the violation and the investigation and forget some of these important factors:

Due Process

Treat the accused employee with the same respect we're required to treat an accused criminal. Doesn't that sound strange? But the reality is we often treat our employees worse than we treat the citizens. Remember "innocent until proven guilty?" How about "due process" and "everyone deserves the best defense?"

Don't lose sight (or allow others to lose sight) of the fact that the person under the investigation is still "one of us" and deserving of proper, respectful treatment. This is especially true when dealing with the media.

Keep In Touch

If the employee is placed on administrative leave during the investigation, make sure someone (preferably several people) from the department keep in touch. The officer sent home on leave will probably be immeasurably grateful to hear humorous roll call stories, updates on notable criminal cases, new policies and initiatives that may be happening in their absence.

Unless the officer is being investigated for a heinous criminal act, being cut off from the agency is unnecessary and inhumane and will just adds to the sense of isolation they already feel. Above all, make sure the employee has access to the Employee Assistance Program and encourage them to take advantage of it.

Keep Others Informed

Obviously, confidentiality is a big requirement in any internal investigation. However, don't use this as an excuse to "ignore the elephant in the room." Police departments are notorious rumor mills, and if the rank and file isn't told something, they'll probably just make it up.

Make sure someone in command, preferably the highest ranking command officer, addresses the roll calls and unit meetings as soon as humanly possible after the incident. Let your personnel know that there's an on-going investigation and that command is doing everything possible to make sure the accused employee is being treated fairly.

Let them ask questions, and above all be honest and open. If you can't answer a question, say so. Remind them that if they were the subject of an internal investigation, they would probably want the details kept under wraps too. Acknowledge that this is a difficult time for everyone, and reassure them that the administration is working hard to handle the problem quickly but thoroughly.

And don't forget the dispatchers, records clerks and other civilian employees, they're part of the agency too but they often get overlooked in the communication chain.

Who Conducts The Investigation?

Except for very large departments, most agencies do not have a full-time Internal Affairs unit, so often this type of investigation has to be conducted by the employee's supervisor or other command officer. The selection of the person or persons conducting the investigation is essential not only to the success of the investigation, but to the line personnel's' reaction to the eventual outcome.

Make sure the person doing the investigating doesn't have a "checkered past" themselves, a connection to the subject of the investigation (good or bad) or isn't just trying to further their own career by showing how tough they can be…in other words, make sure they can be trusted to be objective. This may be the time to call in an outside agency, such as the state police in your area, to conduct the investigation. It is very important this is done in a credible and open fashion.

Having said that, law enforcement needs to be aware of a movement afoot to take all internal investigations away from law enforcement agencies. To quote one of the leaders of this movement:

"Complicating the issue is the tendency of police officers to become uncooperative when faced with an investigation, creating what has been called the 'blue wall' to enforce a code of silence by intimidating any officer who shows any willingness to cooperate with investigators or point the finger at a fellow officer. Thus, many police reform advocates conclude that police organizations are insular, self-referential, and mistrustful of outsiders. Accordingly, these reformers argue, the power of law enforcement to investigate and self-police must be taken away and given to a review board."1

Police agencies and administrators must walk a fine line that avoids damaging either the agency or the public trust in these situations.

Don't Ignore the Root Cause

Don't neglect to investigate the cause of the bad behavior.

In Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, PH.D. states that in dealing with the controversial behavior of an officer "the agency deals with the symptoms but doesn't address the root causes of the problem." In other words, if you have otherwise good employees engaged in stupid behavior, what is really going on?

Dr. Gilmartin goes on to say that often when controversial behavior erupts, the officer or a group of officer has "failed to survive emotionally." A strong, effective administration will not only investigate the employee, but will dig deeper to see why the undesirable behavior is occurring. Be open to the possibility that the investigation will lead to a systemic problem within the organization. The possibility that other behaviors and/or issues are lying just below the surface and may be discovered in the investigation and mitigated or resolved is a real possibility.

Don't Forget The Family

When an officer is under investigation, he or she is not the only one who suffers. Police agencies are great at supporting families during a crisis where the officer is a hero or a victim, but we generally neglect the family when the officer is the "offender."

The family of this officer will undoubtedly suffer embarrassment, confusion, anger, or fear. They probably won't know how to deal with their cop who may be angry or depressed, they may not understand the administrative procedures involved, and they'll certainly be frightened about the potential financial loss.

Make sure a friendly face from the department offers the family some support, whether it's counseling, resources or just someone to say, "We're here for you, we haven't forgotten you."

Make Sure Your Leadership is Visible

Investigating and dealing with the fallout of significant internal affairs situation can keep command officers running from meeting to meeting or holed up in their offices, writing memos and conducting interviews. However, this is not the time to disappear from the department's radar screen.

Make it a point to let the rank and file see you; come to roll calls, unit meetings, luncheons, stop in and say hi to the dispatchers, bring the sergeants a box of doughnuts. Organizational crisis is the true test of any leader's effectiveness, and in crisis, leaders need to be visible. Sometimes, just your mere presence can make all the difference in how the agency will react, responds, and recover from a crisis.

The old principle of "management by wandering around" may never be more pertinent then when an agency is going through in internal investigation, especially when an informal and well liked leader of the department is the focus of complaint. Letting the messenger give you good and back feedback is essential and during a time of internal stress managers have a chance to truly make a difference by simply taking time to be present and listen to the troops in how they feel and what they think.

Let Life Go On

Once its over, let it go and move on (ie: don't hold a grudge).

Just like a criminal who has served his sentence, if the officer has "paid their dues to society" via suspension, demotion, or other disciplinary procedure and is being allowed to return to duty, he or she should be allowed to do so with dignity. After all, unlike said criminal, this is a person who risks his or her life to protect your community and is probably deeply bonded to many of the people that form your agency.

Poorly handled internal investigations and the aftermath that inevitably follows can negatively affect a police agency for years to come. If the officer, the department and the leadership can find common ground that justice has been done and the lesson learned, the probability of a quick healing within an agency is very high!


1. Merrick Bobb, Police Assessment Resource Center, http://www.parc.info

Authors Dave Smith and Betsy Bratner-Smith are instructors for the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar. Be sure to check the full 2006 schedule to find a location near you.

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