By Kris E. Pitcher, Captain, Los Angeles, California, Police Department; André Birotte Jr., Inspector General, Los Angeles, California, Police Department; and Django Sibley, Assistant Inspector General, Los Angeles, California, Police Department
ach year, law enforcement agencies across the nation become involved in thousands of use-of-force incidents, with many resulting in serious injury or loss of life. Just as the use of lethal and lesslethal force is an absolute necessity to control certain situations, so is the accompanying requirement to conduct an extremely thorough investigation to evaluate the officer’s or deputy’s actions and the appropriateness of the force used. It is that investigation that will generally receive close scrutiny and review, both internally and externally, because there is a widely held principle that the community has a right to know whether or not the officer or deputy acted lawfully and appropriately in the application of force—especially when that force is deadly. Moreover, an independent review of such incidents helps to maintain and promote trust and accountability.
Law Enforcement and Civilian Review
Increasingly, jurisdictions face the reality of being accountable, in part, to civilian review boards, inspectors general, offices of independent review, and civilian oversight commissions that review personnel complaint and force-related investigations and resulting adjudications. The primary focus of these oversight entities is generally to ensure that a law enforcement agency’s internal investigations—misconduct and force related—are investigated and reviewed in a fair, thorough, and impartial manner. Moreover, many of these oversight entities have the responsibility of providing recommendations as to the proper outcome of an investigation to the ultimate adjudicator, whether that be a police chief, a sheriff, or a board of police commissioners. To further their own professional networks and competencies as they relate to civilian oversight issues and topics, many of these individuals are associated with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), a nationally focused professional organization. NACOLE’s primary mission is to promote greater police accountability through the improvement of citizen oversight agencies on a national level. Specifically, this organization endeavors to improve oversight entities by providing training to improve oversight-related knowledge and skills, providing advice and technical assistance to jurisdictions, identifying best practices, coordinating networking among oversight agencies, and working with government officials and community representatives on oversight issues. The NACOLE Web site can be accessed at www.nacole.org.
As much as increased organizational transparency and civilian oversight has become the reality for many law enforcement agencies across the country, the primary challenge, according to a large number of law enforcement and civilian oversight personnel, is the relationship, or lack thereof, between the two parties. Many police and sheriff’s departments guard their investigations by keeping oversight personnel outside the yellow crime-scene tape and by providing them with few details regarding the incident being investigated. The primary reasons cited have ranged from a perceived lack of understanding of critical-incident investigations to a distrust of oversight personnel’s ability to maintain an investigation’s confidentiality. Whatever the reasons given or perspectives held, the lack of effective interaction and collaboration between the two can mean missed opportunities, investigative ineffectiveness, and potential community relations issues. In fact, an effective relationship can generate significant benefits for both organizations. However, prior to the progression toward a goal of interaction and collaboration, law enforcement agencies need to realize that the relationship is not a partnership. For any oversight entity to maintain its overall effectiveness and integrity within the system and in the community, it has to be viewed as truly independent in thought and action.
Investigation and Oversight in Los Angeles
The Force Investigation Division (FID) of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) investigates officer-involved shootings and other serious use-of-force incidents involving LAPD officers. All FID investigations are overseen by personnel from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The Inspector General, in turn, reports directly to the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC), the civilian body that oversees the LAPD. The BOPC is the ultimate adjudicator of all significant use-of-force incidents involving LAPD officers.
Since the establishment of the FID in 2004, an effective professional relationship has developed between the FID and the OIG. OIG personnel oversee all aspects of the FID’s investigative process, from the response of OIG personnel to all crime scenes investigated by the FID, to a systematic, thorough review of the FID’s completed investigations. The OIG employs a multidisciplinary, professional oversight model, using a team comprised of lawyers, auditors, and former police officials. The FID, meanwhile, comprises experienced, highly skilled LAPD detectives. At the time of the FID’s establishment, relations between FID and OIG personnel were not always fully productive. A lack of effective communication regarding investigative issues sometimes led to adversarial interactions while limiting opportunities for improvement. In recent years, however, both entities have worked diligently to develop open lines of communication and mutual professional respect. The result has been a cooperative investigation oversight process that has enhanced the quality of the FID’s investigations, increased the effectiveness of the BOPC’s adjudications, and promoted community confidence in the integrity of the LAPD’s internal investigative processes.
Fundamental Relationship Requirements
The FID and the OIG are sophisticated, well-resourced investigation and oversight operations. Not all law enforcement agencies share the same operational scale or dedication of resources. However, regardless of the size of an agency or the makeup of its investigative and oversight entities, attention to fundamental requirements for the establishment of an effective relationship between the law enforcement organization and the oversight entity will provide a framework for success. In the experience of the FID and the OIG, the following principles are essential:
- Both entities must agree upon each party’s responsibilities in maintaining the strict confidentiality of the investigation and involved personnel. Use-offorce investigations typically include considerations of potential criminal culpability and inappropriate or untimely disclosure of evidence could potentially damage the progress of an investigation. Furthermore, successful confidentiality agreements between the two parties function as the key foundational element to the establishment of trust—a factor that is absolutely essential to ensuring effective collaboration and cooperation.
- Inherent in any investigation of a critical use-of-force incident is the application of a variety of investigative techniques, case law, and department policy, as well as a consideration of tactics employed during the incident and investigative thoroughness (depth and scope). While the investigators and overseers contemplate the investigative issues, they may debate the appropriateness of a number of matters, all of which are beneficial to producing a thorough investigation of the highest quality. While such debates may often result in full agreement, there will be times when both parties must simply agree to disagree, rather than labor to prove one’s own point or the other incorrect.
- Respecting others’ points of view will play a key role in building an effective professional relationship between a law enforcement entity and an oversight body. While investigators on both sides of the process possess their own competencies, opinions, and positions regarding the appropriate completion of investigations and audits of administrative and criminal matters, much can be gained if everyone focuses on the overarching goal of producing the most thorough and accurate product possible. At this juncture, it is critical that both parties listen to what is being said by the other, rather than instinctively devise rebuttals and counterarguments. For law enforcement agencies, it is at this point that invaluable insight into the investigation is either gained or lost, and that opportunities for improvement are either seized or squandered.
Additionally, civilian oversight personnel attendance at various use-of-force seminars, conferences, and training classes will assist in the enhancement of their professional competencies and perspectives relative to use-of-force incidents and investigations on which they will be investigating, reviewing, and commenting. In particular, their participation in relevant training opportunities will provide them with exposure to critical research, knowledge, understanding, and investigative perspectives they undoubtedly will encounter in the various administrative and criminal investigations completed by law enforcement personnel. At a minimum, the oversight entity must be conversant in all of an agency’s policies, procedures, and training relevant to the matters it oversees.
Law enforcement agencies stand to benefit tremendously by developing effective relationships with their civilian review entities. The insight and perspective of a civilian oversight member can be exceptionally valuable to an investigation. In Los Angeles, OIG personnel are allowed access to crime scenes to view evidence; can listen to interviews of involved officers and civilian witnesses; can discuss the incident with the lead investigator; and are provided a thorough overview of the incident, complete with a dialogue regarding all known issues, conflicts, problems, and concerns. Involvement with the case does not end with the conclusion of the field investigation; the lead investigator is responsible for keeping the oversight member informed of all pertinent issues throughout the exhaustive investigative process. At the conclusion of the investigation, OIG personnel review the entire case file. When areas for improvement are identified, these are shared with the FID.
Agencies wary of civilian oversight often express concern that an oversight entity cannot effectively review police investigations because the overseers are not police officers and are thus incapable of understanding the work police officers do. However, the experience of the FID and the OIG has shown that civilian insight is extremely valuable, bringing fresh sets of eyes and additional perspectives to the investigative process. This perspective can identify unchallenged assumptions or unconscious biases from investigators that might otherwise limit an investigation. Investigators who accept constructive feedback from civilian overseers and who value alternative perspectives on the work they perform will inevitably learn new ways to enhance the quality of their investigations. Indeed, the FID believes so strongly in the value of incorporating civilian perspectives that the division not only uses OIG feedback as a basis for in-service training for investigators, but also has an in-house team of civilian reviewers who work with detectives to ensure that every issue and conflict is appropriately identified and addressed and that nothing is overlooked. This practice has resulted in significant improvement in the overall quality of FID investigations.
Additionally, civilian involvement can result in enhanced community trust for a law enforcement agency. When communities know that an agency’s internal investigation will be scrutinized by non-police overseers, their confidence in the integrity of the investigation and any resulting adjudication of an officer’s actions is enhanced. This enhanced community confidence can prove vital in avoiding unrest and in maintaining police-community relations following highprofile, controversial uses of deadly force by police officers.
In the aftermath of such critical events, affected communities often seek answers and have already received, or have the potential to quickly receive, exaggerated, misleading or erroneous information regarding police action taken during the incident. In some cases, the source of the information can have an agenda or the unverified, and potentially inflammatory, information is simply passed along to community members who form their own opinions. In many cases, community leaders and members look to independent civilian oversight commissions to gain a better understanding of critical events. When they have full access to investigations, civilian oversight personnel are in an outstanding position to dispel inaccurate, erroneous, or misleading information, and to promote trust in the involved agency’s capacity to investigate and adjudicate the event.
Lastly, oversight personnel often have a keen sense of the needs and expectations that the entity (for example, board of police commissioners and chiefs of police) has for the collection and presentation of the evidence upon which the adjudication will be based. This insight into the demands of the investigation’s end user can prove useful to investigators as they seek to design their investigation to satisfy those demands. Ultimately, this insight promotes effective adjudication.
For the many law enforcement agencies that currently have civilian oversight in some form, and for those anticipating additional operational review and scrutiny, it is important that they strongly consider building effective relationships with oversight entities. Once successfully established and properly maintained, an effective relationship with a civilian oversight entity can directly benefit a police or sheriff’s department’s investigations through the provision of valuable investigative insight and criticisms, and by helping to retain community trust in an organization by providing a positive backspin following critical incidents. ■
Please cite as:
Kris E. Pitcher, André Birotte Jr., and Django Sibley, "Developing Effective Interactions," The Police Chief 77 (May 2010): 46–48,
http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=2084&issue_id=52010 (insert access date).