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Mar 01

Policing the Police-Integrity comes First

Posted on March 1, 2017 at 3:45 PM by Jamie Bastas

I recently reviewed our annual summary and analysis conducted by the Office of Professional Standards within NNPD. This division oversees several very important functions, the biggest of which include our Training component and our Internal Affairs component. Training includes both our In-Service and Specialty training programming (for existing employees) and our Academy (for new hires). While most new hires receive some sort of training, the Academy mostly applies to sworn officers and dispatchers, both of which have their own academy program. In this blog post, however, I will be discussing the important role of the Internal Affairs section and their critical function of sustaining integrity within our organization.

Unlike what Hollywood portrays about Internal Affairs, I’ve never heard anyone here refer to the folks who work there as the “rat squad.” The Office of Professional Standards Captain oversees a Lieutenant and several Sgt.’s who in turn conduct the serious Internal Affairs (IA) investigations. But, these represent only a portion of the investigations and reviews that we do in response to concerns or complaints.

We divide up complaints against employees into two basic types: minor, routine complaints (most often these deal with courtesy concerns, minor policy violations, and often result from misunderstandings or poor transactions/interactions between police officers and citizens) and serious complaints (excessive force complaints, accusations of criminal nature, substance abuse, etc.). Occasionally, what starts out as a relatively informal, minor review by a supervisor at a precinct may grow into a more formal, serious IA investigation, but that happens only occasionally and is completely driven by where the evidence takes us.

Contrary to what many people believe, we try to come into each of these from a neutral perspective. Many citizens think we approach these with the sole purpose of “helping officers get away with bad conduct,” while some officers think the sole purpose is to “find a way to put the screws on an officer.” Neither is accurate. I have long described the process of Internal Affairs as being “seekers of truth” and like any investigation, you go where the evidence and facts take you. Sometimes we don’t enjoy where those facts take us….sometimes, they reveal a level of hatred against the police coupled with fabricated stories seeking to get an officer in trouble just for doing their job. Occasionally, they reveal a deeper, darker side to an employee that we were not previously aware of and a recognition that we have to protect our community and our agency from the destructive conduct at hand. Gratefully I can report to you that the latter scenario is not a prevalent one in the overall profession of policing, and our experience locally reveals that it is quite infrequent.

The introduction of Body Worn Cameras (BWC) a few years ago has changed much in the IA world. Video, as a whole, is ubiquitous now, with almost everyone we have contact with owning a cellular phone that includes video capability. Every officer assigned to uniform patrol, and most assigned to other positions that likely have direct citizen contact are now equipped with BWC’s in Newport News, notwithstanding the occasional equipment malfunction, breakdown, etc. As a result, both patrol based supervisors and IA investigators rely on video to provide a recorded perspective on what occurred, what was and was not said, and some ability to validate or refute the reported complaint. But, video isn’t the panacea that everyone thinks it is. The angle of the camera can result in critical views being blocked, or some audio gets distorted in a noisy environment, or the angle of the video shot provides a perspective that contrasts significantly with what a human eye might perceive at that same instant. Still, the BWC’s are a quantum leap forward in being able to discern fact from fiction in analyzing complaints, and most of our officers now recognize that the video images from their cameras are a great source of affirmation of the great work they do.

Recently, a citizen called to complain about an officer’s conduct, and the IA staff first reviewed the video. When they contacted the complainant and offered her the chance to come discuss what they saw on the video, she backed off completely. This is not an unusual response. On the up side, it helps us clear up either frivolous or inaccurate concerns. On the down side, it is also indicative that too many times, people are trying to get police officers in trouble when they may know the officer did nothing wrong.

On the other hand, the police culture isn’t great about understanding that average citizens who haven’t been trained and are unaware of all of our policies and official tactics may just interpret our actions in a contrary way than our intentions may be. This is where making a complaint can result in mutual learning; our officers can learn how sometimes, just doing your job can have an adverse impact on an average citizen in a way we didn’t intend. And, citizens can learn that sometimes officers act in defensive ways because we train and expect them to do that, that a police officer doesn’t know who they’re interacting with or what threat they may pose until far into the transaction, and in today’s world where police officers have been assaulted and killed simply sitting in their patrol cars, we’re striving for a balance of approachability with safety.

I like “teachable moments”, no matter if it’s the police or the public that can learn. Most of the time, it’s both. One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for Community Oriented/Problem Solving Policing as an operating philosophy is because it leads to much greater mutual understanding between the police and the public we serve. The more we know you, and the more you know us, the more comfortable we are exchanging ideas, learning what to expect from each other, and a safer world we’ll live in.

I’ll close with some statistics from our IA annual report, so that you can see how few interactions we have that result in complaints. We will soon be documenting the less formal, precinct level reviews to be more consistent with our data collection, and so future year reports may look a little different, but the biggest thing we look for are trend lines. In this regard, our trend is for fewer complaints, consistent accountability, and professional deliver of service. A final thought: there are not many occupations that invite consumers to make complaints if they feel aggrieved, and our willingness to fairly and accurately ‘police ourselves’ is a testament to the integrity that we hold as our most fragile and important quality. But, in the event anyone thinks it is sport to falsely accuse, or mess with the livelihood of good cops trying to do the right thing day in and day out, please understand that my personal belief is that we should and will explore all legal options to pursue such false reports up to and including criminal prosecution if appropriate. What’s fair for one is fair for all….that’s what I was raised to believe!

Individual Administrative Investigations - 2016
Total Number of Investigations 36
Number of Completed Investigations 24
Number of Investigations Pending Disciplinary Action 12 

Dispositions for Completed Investigations:
Substantiated 21
Not Substantiated 1
Unfounded 0
Exonerated 2
Refused to Cooperate/Withdrawn 0 

Substantiated: The allegation is supported by sufficient evidence to justify a reasonable conclusion that the allegation is factual.

Not substantiated: There is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegation occurred.

Unfounded: The allegation is unfounded in that it has been proven to be false or not factual.

Exonerated: The incident occurred, but was lawful and proper.

Refused to cooperate: The complainant refused to cooperate with the investigation and a determination cannot be made.

Withdrawn: The complaint may be classified as "withdrawn" in the following instances: 
    1. The complainant has decided not to pursue the original allegation, and there is no evidence to warrant a continued investigation; or 
    2. There is no criminal nexus to the complaint, and it involves a sole employee, who separates employment from the City prior to the commencement of the investigation, or during the investigation process.