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Police Discipline: Part One, the Complaint Process

The internal affairs function is an important part of the disciplinary process of any organization. Internal affairs function is simply the investigation of complaints against employees, sworn and non-sworn. Many police departments choose to call the function something other than internal affairs such as professional standards, police integrity unit, etc. Complaints may simply be violation of a policy, procedure, rule or regulation, or can also be criminal.

If a citizen’s complaint is within department directives, no violation exists. Understanding the function of the internal affairs investigations is important for every employee in the organization. There is significant difference between an administrative investigation and a criminal investigation.

The majority of internal affairs units spend their time investigating administrative violations. Some larger departments create within the internal affairs function, two units, one that handles administrative violations and one that handles criminal violations. The two must be kept separate. Let us take a closer look at the complaint process.


Complaint Process 

There are three principals involved in the complaint process. The first of these is that top management has a proper supportive philosophy. This means that management has a philosophy of welcoming complaints against their employees. In other words, management wants to know if the citizens are dissatisfied.

The second element is a group of officers trained in administrative investigations. These officers should be seasoned investigators and understand the rights of all persons involved. Their primary function is to gather the facts! They must, however, be skilled in dealing with people who may at the time be emotional and even unreasonable.

The third and final element of the complaint process is a well-trained supervisor. If the complaint is minor, the first-line supervisor, in most cases, will take the initial complaint and conduct the administrative investigation. There are good reasons for the first-line supervisor conducting the administrative investigation. It keeps the supervisor invested in the disciplinary process and taking responsibility for the actions of the officer under his/her supervision.

If a supervisor has to conduct investigations regarding the conduct of an officer under his/her supervision, he/she will have an incentive to correct that behavior. A typical policy states: If the violation is sustained and the punishment would be less than lost time, the officer’s supervisor will conduct the investigation.

No obstacles should be in place that discourage citizens from coming forward when they feel they have a complaint. Law enforcement has made substantial changes in the last 20 years. In the past, many police departments required a citizen to come to the station to file a complaint and they were not always received in a friendly manner. This has changed.

Progressive police departments make it easy to file a complaint, either in person, by letter, phone, e-mail, or by completing a form on the Internet. Many also accept anonymous complaints. Accepting anonymous complaints is in keeping with the philosophy of being serious about the conduct of the department employees.

Police departments do not hesitate to accept anonymous information regarding activity of criminals. There is no legitimate argument for not accepting anonymous complaints about the conduct of our employees. It is true that some of these complaints may be retaliation for arrests or for personal reasons. This should be kept in mind when investigating anonymous complaints.

It is very important for department employees to understand the process and to whom complaints should be referred. This means that even if a civilian employee were approached by a citizen, he/she should know where to refer a complainant. Typically, most departments require the on-duty supervisor to take the official complaint. 

In smaller departments, there may be no ranking officer available and the desk personnel or officer may have to take the complaint. The key here is to treat every complaining person seriously and show empathy no matter how frivolous you may think the problem. Many complaints occur because the citizens do not understand legitimate police procedures, officer safety issues, or their limited rights once they are under arrest.

Many of these misunderstandings can be clarified by the person taking the complaint. If it is clear the officer’s actions were within policy, it is incumbent upon the officer taking the report to explain that to the person making the complaint. If the complainant understands that there was no violation and they are satisfied with the explanation they receive, this will end the investigation.

Documentation of the complaint, however, should be forwarded. The reason for this is that the department may have procedures or training issues that generate unnecessary complaints.

The complaint should be forwarded to the internal affairs unit. Small agencies may not justify a full-time unit, but they should have a designated person who handles that function. The reason for designating one person is to assure uniformity as to how complaints are handled.

Once in the internal affairs unit it will be classified, assigned a number, and be either filed or forwarded for more investigation. If the citizen was satisfied with the explanation he/she received, some agencies are classifying this as a citizen inquiry, or some other classification, and not giving it an internal affairs number. There’s nothing wrong with this practice as long as we keep track of those inquiries so we may correct policy or training issues. The complaint can be forwarded for an administrative investigation or for a criminal investigation, or both.

The internal affairs unit or designated person will determine whether this complaint should be investigated by internal affairs or the first-line supervisor. A very few have internal affairs handle all complaints. Supervisors should receive special training in handling administrative investigations. If the complaint requires a criminal investigation, that is usually handled by regular detectives.

One important point to remember is that when a supervisor is conducting an internal affairs investigation, that supervisor is working for internal affairs and reports to them. While this is a violation of chain of command and unity of command, it is necessary to assure all procedures are followed properly and a complete, thorough investigation is done regardless of the skill of the supervisor.

The primary reason for controlling complaints, assigning numbers, classifications, and responsibility for investigations is simply that we want to identify any problems. These problems can be individual personnel, policies, and techniques. It is very important for the disciplinary process to have an early intervention element.


Early Intervention

There is a great deal of emphasis on early intervention in the disciplinary process. This means that a major element of the system is to identify officers who may need special attention such as training, counseling, or closer supervision. History has shown that a small minority of officers generate a majority of citizen’s complaints. If these officers can be identified early and corrective action taken, there will be positive results.

The department has a vested interest in retaining trained and experienced officers. The department has a substantial investment in an officer and we should not lose officers whose action can be corrected. Many times training, counseling, or other intervention techniques will reduce substantially the number of complaints. Study of three major cities showed that with intervention, there was a two thirds reduction in complaints.

Another important reason for having an early intervention system is that should the department be sued over the actions of an officer, the record of that officer will be an issue. If this officer has had a large number of citizen’s complaints or other problems, that either the department was not aware of, or took no action, the agency will be guilty of deliberate indifference.

This will result in financial loss to the taxpayers. In simple terms, the department needs to know if there is a problem and have a process for taking corrective action. Even a large number of un-founded complaints may indicate there is a problem with the policies or a need for training.

The tracking of citizens’ complaints is a major element of the early intervention process. A good internal affairs program can track other things of interest to the agency. Some of the most common are: Use of force; Civil litigation; Resisting arrest incidents; Vehicle pursuits; Internally generated administrative violations; Citizen-initiated commendation or complements; All department commendations and awards.

Other things that may be of interest are sex, race or ethnic origin, age of the complainant, officers involved, supervisors involved, training officer, units involved, type of force used, location of incident, and any of special interest to the department. This kind of tracking helps management identify problems before they become major issues. Medium and large agencies certainly should have computer programs that meet these needs.

Very small agencies, of say less than 25 officers, may feel that they cannot afford a dedicated internal affairs program. A small agency could accomplish much the same results with a simple spreadsheet showing type of complaint, date, time, complainant information, officers involved information, results of the investigation, and any other information they wish to track. Spreadsheet would be reviewed from time to time to identify any patterns.

Early intervention systems have broad goals including: Improve performance of officers involved; Higher standards of accountability; Improve supervisory practices; Higher accountability for supervisors; Higher standards of accountability for entire department; Reduction in litigation; Improve community relations.

More detailed information on implementation of early intervention is available from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in publications such as

Early Intervention System For Law Enforcement Agencies

. This and many other up-to-date publications may be ordered, free of charge, from their website



Closely related to the criteria we have selected above, is the important decision when we need to review. The majority of departments review an officer’s record when they have three complaints within 12 consecutive months. A little over 10 percent use two complaints as the trigger to make a review. There is no particular standard for review that would fit all agencies.

Management usually bases the decision on how severe problems are in the agency. Review should not be viewed as negative. It does not mean that any disciplinary action is taken; only that the files are examined to see if there is a pattern and/or information that would indicate intervention would be appropriate. If there is an indication that intervention is needed, our next decision is what type of counseling or other intervention is appropriate.

There are four that are in widespread use: 1) Informal counseling by immediate supervisor; 2) Informal counseling by immediate supervisor and command staff; 3) Formal observation and documentation; and 4) Special training.

There are advantages and disadvantages in all four of the intervention techniques. Counseling by just the immediate supervisor will result in a less formal and threatening atmosphere, but it may not be taken seriously by either. Counseling with the supervisor and command staff will result in a more formal atmosphere, but will probably not lead to the officer to be forthcoming or acknowledging any weaknesses. Formal observation and documentation and training all take more time and financial resources. Management should select the most appropriate based on the facts.

We have spent considerable time looking at the complaint process and how the information should be used. None of the intervention options that we have discussed should be considered negative discipline. Part 2 in this three-part series on discipline will cover the interview of the complainant and the officer. The third and final part will be on negative discipline options.


Chart 1 - Complaint Process

Citizen with complaint

Referred to on-duty supervisor

who takes report & forwards to IA function

IA number assigned number

and investigative responsibility assigned

Allegation minor

assigned to supervisor

Allegation major

assigned to IA & criminal investigator if crime related














Joseph Koziol has been in law enforcement for 25 years. He can be reached at 

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2016

Rating : 7.0

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