Police Accountability and Protection with Pattern-Or-Practice Investigations

Our law enforcement professionals work hard to keep communities safe. Like any organization, though, not every individual will live up to the industry standards. It only takes one officer’s poor conduct to lead to an entire department investigation. That’s why agency leaders need to understand the accountability process and resolve any concerns related to misconduct.

The Impact of Negative Police Incidents

We’ve all seen the troubling headlines across the nation. An officer is said to be implementing unnecessary force or engaging in racist policing, unreasonable stops and searches, or discrimination. Those events and news are bad enough, and then after the reports, even more troubles can arise. The phrase “one bad apple spoils the bunch” may be an oversimplification, but it’s still a powerful concept where public trust is concerned.

Even a single incident within a community can stir up doubts about the legitimacy of their public safety agencies as a whole. They might begin to question whether or not those terrible acts were isolated incidents. Are they the fault of a single individual? Or do they reflect a wide-spread issue within the agency? Resolving these concerns demands swift action, and often a third-party investigation is required.

Confronting the Challenge of Misconduct

Communities with recurring questions about police misconduct will often call on their government officials to examine the local agency’s practices across the board. These pattern-or-practice investigations can be launched just about any time an officer is accused of misconduct, and while certain states are able to conduct pattern-or-practice investigations of their own, more often it’s the federal government that will be called on to take a deep dive into all of the agency’s practices.

During this process, the DOJ will review the history of actions of the department, rather than investigate the singular incident. The goal is to determine whether or not the agency has systemic issues with their police training and day-to-day practices. Naturally, a pattern-or-practice investigation would include a detailed review of the agency’s own accountability protocols and written policies, or lack thereof.

It’s common for these investigations to go on for more than a year, and the size of the agency and amount of evidence to review can have the timeline stretch even longer. Once complete, the DOJ will disclose the findings, which can go one of two ways. The Division will either close the pattern-or-practice investigation, concluding that the agency’s conduct honors the legal rights, immunities, and privileges of the people. Or it will call for corrective action and a consent decree from the agency, which only depletes the public trust even further.

Implementing any necessary reforms after a pattern-or-practice investigation often takes multiple years. Along the way, the police agency will usually have an independent monitor overseeing the specific reforms.

Nothing about police misconduct is justifiable, and the process of remedying an agency’s history of unlawful conduct is never easy. But with the right tools and preventative measures, agencies can maintain their integrity.

Reestablishing Trust with Police Accountability Tools

How police communicate while on the job, and with the populations they serve, can make all the difference for building trust. For example, the advent of body cameras has become common practice both for protecting an officer’s character, as well as every other individual’s rights. We rely on high-quality evidence for any investigation. So when it comes to complying with a pattern-or-practice investigation—or ideally, avoiding the situation altogether—agencies need to be able to act with full transparency.

Creating written policies for their own investigative process is critical. There’s also the matter of being able to use the right tools for the job at hand. Just consider the interrogation process. When an officer is collecting interview evidence, they need access to reliable audio video recording equipment. This allows them to provide the court with a dependable account, all while protecting their own integrity. There won’t need to be any questions about police misconduct during an interrogation when the entire process is recorded from start to finish.

Police accountability and improving transparency are always going to be top of mind for the industry. Yet with good technology, up-to-date written policies, training, and a departmental culture focused on integrity, our communities can trust that our justice system is truly fair, just, and working in the best interests of the people.

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