Among more polite officers, internal affairs is thought of as a necessary evil. In less polite, more candid circles it's thought of in less savory terms like "the secret police" and "the rat squad."
Since the 1950s when the first internal affairs units were established, policing the police has not been an easy job. It was never intended to be.
But it is indeed a necessary evil. If internal affairs units didn't exist, departments would face more external oversight from local, state, and federal governments. And for an understanding of what a pain it is to answer to the feds, talk to officers in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and most recently Detroit who now toil under mountains of additional paperwork dictated by consent decrees (See "Under the Gun").
The job of internal affairs investigators is to find the truth about charges levied by civilians against fellow cops and to protect the department from systemic corruption. This puts them in the strange and untenable position of possibly being the best friend a cop could have, or his worst adversary.
"Our job is to keep the police officers out of trouble," says Lt. Jorge Perez, commander of the Miami Police Department's internal affairs unit. "The officers may not like the way that we keep them out of trouble, but if we can have an officer enjoy a full career of 20 to 25 years of service because of what we do, then we have achieved our mission."
Working the Miami IA is a tough job in more ways than one. The case load is heavy and the staff is small. The unit has 15 investigators, counting Perez, which are divided into a misconduct group and a corruption group. In 2002, these officers worked 290 complaints, involving 566 allegations. In addition, they conducted "early warning" tracking to identify problem officers, and followed up with undercover operations to determine if suspicions of officer misconduct merited further investigation.
Every investigation is different but all result in one of four findings: cleared, inconclusive, sustained, or withdrawn. Because of the nature of policing in which one officer often engages one civilian, many allegations require IA investigators to weigh the word of the officer against the word of the complainant without corroborating evidence and result in a finding of "inconclusive." Regardless of the IA investigators' initial findings, Florida law requires that cases involving allegations of serious misconduct be sent to the state attorney's office for review.
In Miami, findings for cases that don't involve criminal conduct are submitted to the commander of the officer who is being investigated and discipline is meted out by the command structure, not by IA. "Officers have a misconception that we are smacking them," says Perez. "But that's incorrect. In the city of Miami, IA does not recommend discipline."
Perez says his goal is to make sure that allegations are investigated as soon as possible to remove tarnish on the reputations of innocent officers. Toward that end, Miami IA tries to complete every investigation within 45 days of its filing. "We treat every investigation as if it was a homicide investigation, processing it as soon as possible. It's not fair to an officer or his family to let a case linger."