While issues of police accountability have recently become a major site of public concern in the U.S., they are arguably an inevitable result of the structure of law enforcement in this country. As discussed, policing is both hyper-localized (even very small municipalities have their own agencies) and very decentralized (few federal and state laws and agencies that regulate and monitor local law enforcement actions). On the one hand, these characteristics allow police the flexibility to respond to issues of local concern; on the other, they can complicate police oversight and the enforcement of accountability. Still, different mechanisms for ensuring the acceptability and legality of police behavior exist at different levels, starting with individual law enforcement agencies.
Within departments themselves, Internal Affairs (IA) divisions exist to hold officers accountable for their actions. Whenever there is an issue, either brought forth by another officer, a supervisor or a member of the general public, the IA division of the police department is responsible for conducting a thorough investigation into the incident. Members of the IA division work directly under the Chief or Sheriff. IA work has been greatly assisted by technological developments in policing, such as a new software program called IA Pro. This program follows individual police officers throughout their entire career. In theory, any “grass” or “meat eater” could bid on a new shift each year, gaining a new supervisor who would be unaware of past infractions. However, IA Pro ensures that any and all infractions by an officer are recorded and followed up by the applicable supervisor. For example, if an officer uses profanity toward the public, the program might require the officer to attend training. If the officer used profanity a second time within the prescribed time limits, they might be placed on a timed employee development program, and face discipline up to termination. IA Pro is not a panacea, but it does significantly lower the number of officers who are allowed to continue misbehaving.
If an officer is accused of a more serious infraction, such as excessive use of force or lying, the officer may immediately be placed on administrative leave, while the Internal Affairs Division investigates the incident. After, IA will offer one of several findings on the complaint: Sustained (Evidence exists of misconduct); Not Sustained (Evidence of misconduct is not sufficient); Exonerated (Affirmative evidence shows that officer did not violate policy); Unfounded (Evidence shows the complaint to be inaccurate). Once one of the above complaint dispositions is assigned, it is then forwarded to the Command Staff (Chief or Sheriff and Assistant Chief/Sheriff, Deputy Chief/Sheriff, and Captains) for review and discipline. Discipline can include time-off, up to termination.
Of course, most police departments in the U.S. do not have the resources to fund or staff an entire, separate IA division. In these cases, investigations into officer misconduct may simply be conducted by the head of the organization (ex., a Chief), the accused officer’s supervisors, or external persons/agencies. In the latter case, discipline must still be determined and executed by the department executive (Chief or Sheriff) themselves.
Because internal investigations are typically removed from public view, more transparent means of addressing police misconduct have emerged in some locales. Civilian or Citizen Review Boards, for example, may solicit public complaints of police misconduct (such as unjustified use-of-force), investigate the claims externally, and hold public hearings to disseminate their findings and recommendations for discipline. For example, the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board (PCPRB) was founded in 1997 to investigate civilian complaints against the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. In 2020, the PCPRB investigated 184 citizen submissions, containing 449 separate allegations. While citizen review boards represent an accessible outlet for citizens to voice and track their complaints, many lament their lack of real power: review boards are empowered to recommend officer discipline, but they cannot enforce it. Moreover, given their available resources, they may be unable to deeply investigate the large volume of complaints submitted. In 2020, the PCPRB only “sustained” – affirmed evidence that “accountability standards had been violated” – 11 percent of allegations. to hold police accountable for their actions by reviewing all use of force incidents.