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Police or law enforcement officers are expected to uphold the law and be above reproach. While that is generally the case, just like any other profession, there are some who cross the line or take advantage of their position of authority. For that reason, law enforcement agencies within the United States have an internal affairs department. The primary responsibility of an internal affairs department is to investigate complaints of police misconduct or criminal acts committed by officers. In addition, an internal affairs department will routinely investigate situations where a police officer discharged his or her firearm during the apprehension of a suspect or engaged in a high pursuit chase of a suspect, among other potentially questionable actions.
Within a law enforcement agency, the internal affairs department typically operates almost as a separate agency. Members of the department usually report directly to the Chief of Police or to a civilian review board. Understandably, the detectives who are assigned to the internal affairs department are not always particularly popular among the other officers on the force. Members of the department are all detective-grade officers as a rule.
When a civilian has a complaint against a law enforcement officer, he or she may file a formal complaint with the internal affairs department. Each jurisdiction has its own policies and procedures for filing a complaint; however, procedure must be made available to anyone who wishes to file a complaint in all cases. The complaint will then be passed on to a detective within the department for review. If the detective feels that the complaint merits investigation, then a formal investigation will be opened. The exact procedures for investigating a complaint will vary by department and by the type of complaint filed, but an interview with the complainant and the officer in question is generally a starting point.
If the investigation of a complaint leads the detective in charge to conclude that the officer in question did violate department policy or commit a crime, then he or she will report the finding to the chief of police or to a civilian review board for appropriate action. A law enforcement officer who is found to have violated department policy may face a verbal or written warning, a suspension with or without pay, or even termination of his or her employment. If an officer is found to have committed a crime, then he or she will be charged just as a civilian would be under the same circumstances. All complaints filed, as well as the results, should be recorded in an officer's personnel file.