There are two main ways that police misconduct gets investigated. Either the department where the officer works or a larger state agency will have an internal affairs division that deals exclusively with claims such as excessive use of force, false arrests, and planted evidence. The local prosecutor for the jurisdiction where the incident happened can also review the situation and determine whether criminal charges are appropriate for serious cases of misconduct.

What is internal affairs?

Internal affairs is the name given to a certain group of people within a police department or government who look into accusations of illegal and unethical behavior by law enforcement. This is the main way that police are held accountable for their actions. Each department has their own procedures, but a citizen or another employee can begin the process for an investigation by submitting a formal complaint. The division will then investigate to see if the claim should be sustained or not based on the results of the investigation. If the claim is not sustained, the officer will not face any disciplinary action and the investigation stops. If the claim is sustained, the officer can receive various forms of punishment including reassignment, suspension, termination, and loss of pay. In serious cases, the incident may also be forwarded to a local prosecutor to see if criminal charges are appropriate as well. 

Many of the claims they see are related to violent behavior called excessive use of force. These use of force claims are common because police do need to use weapons or physical force to secure a dangerous situation, yet it can be difficult to determine whether their actions were warranted given the threat level. Excessive use of force claims become the basis for many civil lawsuits for police brutality, especially when there is video footage of an officer harming someone who poses no threat of violence. 

Are cops likely to be punished by either of these entities? 

As a general rule, victims should be aware that these two agencies rarely punish police officers unless there is clear evidence of serious misconduct. One of the most frustrating aspects of police brutality cases is that officers seem to be held to a different standard than many other professions in the country, and they rarely receive any kind of serious punishment for violence or abuses of authority. Internal affairs will often issue a brief suspension or some other minor form of punishment until the incident is forgotten. Convictions in criminal court against police officers who injure or kill someone while in the line of duty are also rare.  

One of the most common remedies available is when a local government is willing to offer a financial settlement to the victim after a civil lawsuit to make the negative publicity go away. This means that a victim should talk to their own civil lawyer to ensure the best chance of receiving some form of justice. 

Learn more about police misconduct and lawsuits against the police

Even though internal affairs and a local prosecutor’s office will review a report of police misconduct, it is still best to retain your own attorney and file a civil case. This can be done regardless of what happens with the government’s investigation. There is a listing on of police brutality lawyers who can file a civil case on your behalf.

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