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Chief's Counsel

Internal Affairs: An Evolution in Organizational Culture?

By Richard D. “Rick” Courtemanche Jr., Assistant City Attorney and Police Legal Advisor, Tallahassee , Florida, Police Department

olice executives understand the difference between misconduct and corruption. Misconduct occurs in every department; any violation of policy may logically be termed “misconduct.” Corruption, however, is a different story altogether. In its model policy on Corruption Prevention, dated October 1, 1996, the IACP defines corruption as “acts involving the misuse of authority by a police officer in a manner designed to produce personal gain for the officer or others.”1 Misconduct gets officers fired; corruption gets chiefs fired. Therefore, for decades, law enforcement agencies focused on preventing widespread corruption within the ranks and minimized isolated acts of misconduct as the result of a few negative influences. Abder Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Rodney King are examples of police brutality that police executives denounced as the acts of rogue officers. Are these acts the result of one figurative bad apple or the result of a figurative rotten barrel?

In 1992, then–New York City Mayor David Dinkins convened the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, otherwise known as the Mollen Commission, to investigate allegations of corruption in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). In its initial report dated July 7, 1994, titled Anatomy of Failure: A Path for Success,2 the commission made some disturbing findings:

  1. There appeared to be a cycle of reform and corruption within the NYPD3 that operated on a 20-year cycle.3

  2. The overall culture in the NYPD sacrificed integrity for loyalty.

  3. Agency leaders feared the consequences of a corruption scandal on the agency and on their employment over the corruption itself.4

With the advent of 24-hour media and cellphone video cameras, police leaders could no longer operate as they were and blame incidents of corruption on a few troublesome officers. Thankfully, most police agencies have evolved—some less willingly than others—into becoming more accountable organizationally to the citizens they serve.

In a 2003 working paper from the University of Virginia School of Law titled “Organizational Culture and Police Misconduct,”5 author Barbara Armacost stated that “organizational factors are the major determinant of police misconduct and an important—and often neglected—part of the solution. . . . If organizational culture—not only the culture of policing in general but the culture of particular police organizations—is an important part of the story of police violence, then attention to organizational culture has to be part of the solution.”6 The paper further describes the disconnect between official department polices and the informal police culture of aggressive, no-holds-barred policing lauded by police officials until or unless it becomes embarrassing. At that point, law enforcements leaders distance themselves from the culture they once supported. The resulting conclusion was that “the only way that individual cops will change is if the organizational culture changes, and the only way the organization will change is if high-level officials are held accountable for the actions of their subordinates. As long as police administrators can chalk up misconduct to a few ‘rotten apples’ and absolve themselves for any responsibility for the barrel out of which the rotten apples came, there will be no lasting reform.”7

Recent law enforcement publications have reinforced the attempt to move away from the traditional view of select negative influences on an agency and toward a culture of collective integrity, offering insight into how agencies can hold themselves more accountable to their citizens. In a 2010 report titled Enhancing Cultures of Integrity: Technical Assistance Guide, published by the Boston Police Department, this evolution was discussed: “Over the past five to ten years, research on police integrity and accountability has begun to move away from an individualistic approach to screening out ‘bad applies’ and toward an emphasis on building systems within departments that continually reinforce a culture of integrity by reflecting core values in daily processes.”8

In 2009, two major reports were published that attempted to develop standards and best practices to reinforce that culture of integrity. In August 2009 the National Internal Affairs Community of Practice Group, comprising members of the Los Angeles Police Department and 11 other major city and county law enforcement agencies, published Standards and Guidelines for Internal Affairs: Recommendations from a Community of Practice (SGIA) through the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice.9 A second report was published in October 2009 by the IACP Internal Affairs Advisory Committee, titled Building Trust between the Police and the Citizens They Serve: An Internal Affairs Promising Practices Guide for Local Law Enforcement.10

Interesting enough, both reports came up with the same conclusions. Both reports noted that it was impossible to generate best practices for internal affairs because of differences in state and local law, collective bargaining, and organizational and political cultures; a one-size-fits-all approach to internal affairs is impossible. Both reports also focused on the necessity of a “transparent” internal affairs process as a tool for enhanced community trust. Additionally, both reports focused on four basic strategies:

  1. The agency should create, and the citizens should expect, that complaints of officer misconduct will be accepted in good faith and that the process shall be accessible, fair, and transparent.

  2. The Internal Affairs Unit should review each complaint and determine if an investigation is warranted based on agency policy and procedure.

  3. The investigation of all complaints should be thorough, unbiased, and timely.

  4. There is no consensus as to the best way to determine corrective action to modify the employee’s behavior.

Both reports also focused primarily on the tools necessary to maintain a healthy relationship between the agency and the complainant or community and touched very little on the relationship between the agency and the accused officer (most reports ignore processes designed to improve the relationship between accused officer and complainant). However, both reports acknowledge the idea of “positive discipline,” or an alternative from the traditional punitive disciplinary process. The presumption that discipline deters future misconduct probably no longer holds true. In the SGIA report, the commentary states that “the employer’s response to employee transgressions is not to seek a penalty to fit the offense, but to find a strategy to fit the employee.”11 This strategy requires the agency to identify the thought process that led the officer to violate policy and then determine the best way to train the officer to modify the thought process and make it automatic.

In June 2011, the National Institute of Justice published a report titled Police Discipline: A Case for Change.12 This report was one of a series of papers published by the Harvard Kennedy School of Criminal Justice Policy and Management’s Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety. Instead of focusing on internal affairs and disciplinary processes initiated to improve the relationship between the agency and the community, Police Discipline began with the statement that criminal justice professionals are in agreement that the administration of discipline to law enforcement officers is a frustrating experience that “has fallen well short of the primary purpose of holding officers accountable for their actions and encouraging behavior that falls within departmental expectations and values.”13

The report further questioned the use of traditional punishment disciplinary systems and focused on managing and modifying officers’ behaviors. The first step was to create an environment within the agency where formal discipline is the last resort and the least utilized tool to deal with officer misconduct. Creating the right environment requires the following:

  1. hiring the right people for the job, utilizing clear employment standards that emphasize the appropriate personality and character traits;
  2. having standardized direction through policy to establish clear expectations of the department’s goals and objectives;
  3. utilizing training to make those goals and objectives second nature, not only when hired, but throughout an officer’s career;
  4. providing effective supervision for “translating the department’s mission, vision, values, policies, rules, and regulations into operational practice”; and
  5. utilizing technology, such as vehicle locators and in-car cameras, as a method of deterring misconduct.

The second step was to create a disciplinary system that served the interests of all three parties: the community, the officer, and the department. Some of the alternative disciplinary processes covered included the following:

  • Discipline Matrix. Although not new, the idea of a discipline matrix allows officers to know beforehand what discipline is pending. This idea also ensures consistency.
  • Education-Based Discipline (EBD). Developed by the Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff’s Department, EBD authorizes officers facing discipline the option of developing their own remedial plans through training, education, or other means.
  • Mediation. The idea of mediation may be the only format to consider for repairing the relationship between the individual officer and the complainant, where both parties are encouraged to meet face-to-face to discuss the circumstances of the complaint and seek common ground.
  • Peer Review. Having been tried in the 1970s but abandoned since then, peer review utilizes senior officers within the same rank as the individual officer to encourage and reinforce positive behavior.
  • Early Intervention. Primarily a data-based management tool to identify officers who may be exhibiting problem behavior, early intervention tracks performance indicators and uses thresholds to notify supervisors of problem behavior. Supervisors may intervene and suggest counseling, training, or other remedial actions to improve performance. While early intervention is relatively popular in law enforcement, it is usually utilized prior to and not in lieu of formal discipline.
  • The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Discipline Philosophy. In January 2005, Charlotte-Mecklenburg published The Pursuit of Excellence, Employee Conduct: Investigations and Discipline.14 This guidebook is geared to providing insight not only to the public but also to department officers as to what they do and why they do it. The goal is to provide “consistency [in] holding everyone equally accountable for unacceptable behavior and fairness [in] understanding the circumstances that contributed to the behavior while applying the consequences in a way that reflects this understanding.”15

Finally, Police Discipline touched on how to move forward, offering the SARA (scanning, analysis, response, and assessment) model16 to identify some characteristics that may contribute to an effective disciplinary process, including early intervention, fair and consistent application of discipline, focus on changing unacceptable behavior, and a timely and transparent process.17 Following these steps would add legitimacy to the disciplinary system.

Police departments have come a long way from refusing to confront the problem when it comes to officer misconduct. Only through diligent efforts to change the organizational culture of accountability can agencies truly serve the communities they protect and the officers they employ. ■

Richard Courtemanche is coinstructor of the “Internal Affairs: Legal and Operational Issues” training program that has been offered by the IACP Center for Police Leadership and Training.


1For information on up-to-date model policies, please contact the National Law Enforcement Policy Center by email at or visit
2City of New York, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, commission report, Anatomy of Failure: A Path for Success (New York: July 7, 1994), (accessed October 5, 2011).
3Ibid., 5–6.
4Ibid., 1.
5Barbara E. Armacost, “Organizational Culture and Police Misconduct” (public law working paper no. 03-6, University of Virginia School of Law, Spring 2003).
6Ibid., 5–6.
7Ibid., 65.
8U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, and the Boston Police Department, Enhancing Cultures of Integrity: Technical Assistance Guide (April 2010), 5, (accessed October 5, 2011).
9U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Standards and Guidelines for Internal Affairs: Recommendations from a Community of Practice, (accessed October 5, 2011).
10U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Building Trust between the Police and the Citizens They Serve: An Internal Affairs Promising Practices Guide for Local Law Enforcement (2009), (accessed October 5, 2011).
11Standards and Guidelines for Internal Affairs, 56.
12Darrel W. Stephens, Police Discipline: A Case for Change (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 2011), (accessed October 5, 2011).
13Ibid., 1–2.
14Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, Employee Conduct: Investigations and Discipline—A Guidebook for the Public and Our Employees on What We Do and Why We Do It (2005), (accessed October 5, 2011).
15Ibid., 1.
16“The SARA Model,” Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, (accessed October 5, 2011).
17Employee Conduct: Investigations and Discipline, 19–20.

Please cite as:

Richard D. Courtemanche Jr., "Internal Affairs: An Evolution in Organizational Culture?" Chief’s Counsel, The Police Chief 78 (November 2011): 14–15.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 11, November 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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