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Who Investigates Police Misconduct?

February 1, 2023
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Body Cam

The day we no longer need onlookers to videotape police misconduct has come because their own body cameras are doing it for us. Once thought to be a means to deter police misconduct, the case of Tyre Nichols proves body cameras alone are not a deterrent. On January 7, 2023, this 29-year old black man was brutally and fatally beaten by five Memphis police officers, all of whom were members of a special unit known as Scorpion. Allegedly using excessive and fatal force, these officers did not fear the cameras they wore. This audacity is indicative of something much more pervasive than wrongful deaths at the hands of police officers but a system designed to nurture a sense among police officers that they are not only enforcers of the law but are above the law, and this falsehood disproportionately impacts communities of color. 

Understandably, people want answers to all the questions that abound. Particularly, who investigates police misconduct, and how does police reform come about? Here, we discuss these questions with answers that are multi-faceted. 


Who Investigates Police Misconduct?  

Pessimism abounds when it comes to police misconduct. It’s commonly believed that the police can get away with murder. Indeed, they do get away with it – criminally at least. Just look at Rodney King or Breonna Taylor, to name a few. Though they may pay in civil court, most officers who cause death, do so with impunity. The New York Times published an investigative piece in 2021 and summed it up in one line: “A wide gulf remains between the public perception of police violence and how it is treated in court.” The article continues later with the statement that 

Few police officers are ever charged with murder or manslaughter when they cause a death in the line of duty, and only about a third of those officers are convicted.

Death at the hands of the police, however, is the worst form of police misconduct when viewed on a spectrum. The net of police misconduct is much wider and can involve anything from false arrests and wrongful convictions to excessive force, including the wrongful use of tasers and police dogs

All forms of police misconduct must be investigated – however minimal it may seem when juxtaposed with death. So, who conducts these investigations? In other words, who polices the police? 

General Overview of Police Misconduct Investigations

Each law enforcement agency has an internal affairs or professional standards division that investigates allegations of misconduct. This type of investigation could result in disciplinary action. However, there is reason to believe that you cannot always trust the police to investigate themselves.

If the misconduct violates the law, a criminal investigation may ensue alongside or upon completion of the professional standards investigation. Depending on the circumstances, a state bureau of investigation, like the California Bureau of Investigation, may conduct the criminal investigation. When civil rights are allegedly violated, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) may conduct an investigation, too. So, in any given case, there could be three simultaneous investigations. This was true in the George Floyd case and is now true in the Tyre Nichols case.

Internal Affairs Units

Most police departments have an internal affairs unit, also known as a professional standards division, that is responsible for investigating allegations of police misconduct. These units are typically made up of sworn police officers who are assigned to investigate complaints made against other officers within the department.

The purpose of an internal affairs unit is to ensure that the police department is held accountable for its actions and that officers who engage in misconduct are held responsible for their actions. This is questionable. For example, a change to California law in 2019, as a result of SB 1421 signed by the Governor on September 30, 2018, opened up some internal investigations of police misconduct. This investigation of the investigators of police misconduct uncovered 100 stories where officers who committed abuses and false arrests were fired only to be rehired by other agencies. 

Civilian Review Boards

In addition to internal affairs units, many cities also have civilian review boards that are responsible for investigating allegations of police misconduct. Civilian review boards are typically made up of civilian volunteers who are appointed by the mayor or city council to review complaints made against the police department.

The purpose of civilian review boards is to provide an independent, impartial review of police misconduct allegations and to ensure that the public has a voice in the process. Another investigation into these investigators of police misconduct proves unsatisfactory, too. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported on an Inspector General audit finding that civilian discipline panels are lenient, allowing police officers to get away with misconduct.  

Independent Prosecutors

In some cases, investigations into police misconduct may be handled by an independent prosecutor. Independent prosecutors are typically appointed by the state attorney general or governor and have the authority to investigate and prosecute cases of police misconduct.

The purpose of an independent prosecutor is to provide an independent, impartial investigation of police misconduct allegations and to ensure that the prosecution of police misconduct cases is handled fairly and transparently.

Federal Agencies

In cases of police misconduct that involve federal civil rights violations, the investigation may be handled by a federal agency like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Department of Justice (DOJ).

These agencies have the authority to investigate and prosecute cases of police misconduct that involve federal civil rights violations, such as excessive use of force, racial profiling, and other forms of discrimination. How responsive these agencies perform, however, is dependent on the current administration. Under the Biden Administration, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has brought a record number of criminal charges against police officers for civil rights violations. Further, the Pew Research Center reported on how, after a four-year hiatus under the Trump Administration, the feds are once again investigating local police departments. That’s a good thing, not a bad one.

Indirect Ways to Police the Police

Though there are formal channels to investigate the police for misconduct, those channels are not always or necessarily trustworthy. That’s a problem because the investigation of police misconduct is a critical aspect of ensuring accountability and protecting the public. 

Media is one way that police can be policed. Journalists use their sources to uncover violations and report on their findings. These reports can add the necessary pressure to ensure accountability. 

Another way to police the police is through the courts. Victims of police misconduct should file civil rights complaints. This process forces an investigation, and the officer or agency will have to defend against the allegations. Plus, settlements are costly, and so the more attention brought to these cases and the more money is expended on them, the more chances that something will be done if not internally then externally through public support of police reform. 


How Do We Reform the Police?

Federal, state, county, and local law enforcement agencies play an important role in maintaining safety and upholding the law. When allegations of misconduct or abuse of power arise, public trust in the system falters. Over the years, indeed decades, detailed and horrific reports of police misconduct have made the headlines, instilling deep resentment and distrust among community members. After the death of George Floyd, national calls to defund the police were met with as much support as there were mixed feelings and criticism. 

Defunding the police is not going to happen today or tomorrow, and whether it should and what that would look like are other topics entirely. It does, however, foster a healthy conversation about police reform. Police reform could be approached from multiple positions, but only a comprehensive approach will address the underlying pervasive cause of police misconduct, which is: a broken system. 

  • Strengthening accountability: Police departments must be held accountable for their actions. This can be done by implementing independent review boards and giving citizens the right to file complaints against police officers.
  • Increasing transparency: Police departments must be transparent in their actions and make all records of incidents of police misconduct publicly available.
  • Implementing training and education programs: Police officers must receive training on how to handle sensitive situations and be educated on the importance of protecting civil rights.
  • Reducing military equipment: The use of military equipment by police officers must be reduced to avoid the militarization of police departments.
  • Encouraging community involvement: Police departments must encourage community involvement in their activities and be open to feedback from citizens.
  • Providing support for officers: Police officers must receive adequate support and resources to do their jobs effectively and safely. This includes providing them with access to mental health services and resources to deal with the stress of their jobs.
  • Reforming hiring and promotion practices: Police departments must reform their hiring and promotion practices to ensure that only qualified individuals are hired and promoted.
  • Reforming training practices and policies: Police departments must reform the way they train and highlight biases that perpetuate police misconduct against black and brown communities in particular.

Addressing and countering the systemic racism and misogyny is critical, but how to do so in a way that is effective has yet to be established. The conversation, nonetheless, must be had. One bold step towards that end is possible today. The Biden Administration could commit to, support, and then sign bipartisan legislation to end qualified immunity. Qualified immunity allows police and other law enforcement agents to escape responsibility for their misconduct.

All of the above steps are a starting point for bringing about police reform. The ultimate goal should be to create a police force that is accountable, transparent, and serves the community with professionalism, fairness, and respect. 

It is achievable if only we commit to it. And we at Burris Nisenbaum Curry & Lacy make it our mission to move toward that goal. 

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