Entering the 'dark side': Becoming an internal affairs investigator

Exposure to IA will allow a cop to better understand the personnel system, agendas of some citizens, attitudes and mindset of officers, and the thought process of managers


Entering the ‘dark side’ is a comedic but offensive phrase used to describe employment in an internal affairs unit. The function of internal affairs is to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, which is necessary for the maintenance of ethical conduct in an organization.

The phrase might offer a clue about how disliked the concept — critically looking at the words and actions of others — is by many law enforcement officers and why some have difficulty considering a position as an internal affairs investigator.

While some officers might relish a new challenge, choosing to become an IA investigator can be in contrast to being appointed as one. For any department, choosing the right person to conduct internal investigations is as important as the function itself. The right person is one with a high level of integrity, polite professionalism, quality competence, unquestioned loyalty to the parent organization and with no known or underlying bias.

Not for Everybody
Objectively, not everyone is suited to conduct investigations of allegations of misconduct. An IA investigator must understand the sensitivity of an internal investigation and show respect to all employees in an attempt to foster mutual respect and cooperation. Showing respect to employees by the investigator is as important as the respect shown to a citizen served by the department.

A law enforcement agency with inner turmoil may not give citizens the service required. Rather, it may focus less on service to the public and more on itself. The right person is one who understands the IA function is designed to protect, not antagonize.

The process of a leader appointing an officer should be well thought-out. To properly vet a candidate can take a considerable amount of time. A background investigation similar to one for pre-employment candidates is a good start. Officers inside and out of the department along with citizens known to have interacted with the candidate should be interviewed. Equally important is how personnel from the county prosecutor or U.S. Attorney’s Office portray the applicant.

Prior to making a final decision to hire an applicant, the unit leader should ensure the person understands how an IA assignment can affect a career. During an internal investigation, numerous interactions will take place with other officers — with friends. Some officers under investigation or identified as a witness can be a higher rank then the investigator. Some will resent the authority IA has over them.

An internal affairs investigator will continue to meet department members during investigations, social events and training sessions. The investigator must recognize he or she may re-enter the department after the IA assignment. He or she may always be known by a derogatory adjective which may cause difficulties for years to come. However, it is important to note that not all departments are the same and not all or any of what was just described may occur.

A Rewarding Experience
Because of emotionally-charged experiences along with supporting written and film media, officers in some departments have a strong, adverse opinion of internal affairs investigators. In 1994, a now dated report was issued by the Mollen Commission regarding the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB). Because of a department order, many officers were reluctantly drafted into IAB. Some officers were angry because of the accompanying negative stigma and their opinion IA did not conduct ‘real’ police work.

Surprisingly, the report indicated that drafted officers found satisfaction in IAB and felt they were better officers for the experience.

Exposure to IA will allow an officer to better understand the personnel system, the agendas of some citizens, the attitudes and mindset of officers, and the thought process of senior managers. An IA investigator will learn a minority of employees are investigated by internal affairs while even a smaller number seemingly enjoy the company of internal affairs confirmed by their reoccurring wrongdoing.

For some it might be difficult to understand the many reasons why employees violate criminal laws and administrative policy. Being an internal affairs investigator is a learning experience which can expand the knowledge and skills of any officer. Although an officer may be criticized for conducting internal investigations, the experience can be a fulfilling one. 

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