Can and Should Police Investigate Themselves?

images (1)Of course, the question of self-regulation is not only relevant to the police but applies to every institution of power in our society — medical, educational, military, governmental, and so forth.

But for this discussion, let’s limit this question to the police.

It is very difficult (and painful) for a police department to criticize or discipline one of its own. Why? Because in many instances of police review, those who are doing the reviewing know that “there but for the grace of God go I.” This has a chilling effect especially when it comes to the use of force. Policing is a difficult job. And a community needs to support their police when they are doing a good job and ask for change and improvement when they are not.

The primary place were police often go amiss with those whom they are pledged to serve is in the use of force — and most assuredly in the use of deadly force. Secondly, in the matters of discourtesy (often racism), false statements (lying), and taking things (stealing). However, when police can most effectively investigate themselves is when the matter being investigated is consistent with the police subculture; that is, a department that strongly believes that their officers should be honest and respectful to citizens will be more likely to take quick and effective action when those in the ranks step outside of those rules.

Nevertheless, when police have trouble investigating themselves is when the conduct being investigated is NOT outside the subculture, not outside department practices (norms). And often that is  in the use of force — most often in arresting someone who doesn’t want to be arrested or arresting someone who has, for example, killed, assaulted, eluded or disrespected another police officer. Overshadowing these events comes the attitude that police have a tough job to do that involves dealing with and controlling “bad people” who need to be under control lest they come and harm one of us. This is when the term “thin blue line” is often spoken; remember, we, the police, are a thin line between you and the bad guys out there.

I wish there was an easy answer to this problem. Yes, there can be outside investigators sent in when a complaint regarding the use of force has been made or when police have been involved in a shooting. The quality of the investigation will, of course, rest on the ability of those doing the investigating. And, in many occasions, the ability often rests in the largest department in the area which also has the most experienced investigators.

We must not forget that a call to create a mechanism for police oversight can be viewed by many police officers as questioning their ability and integrity. Most police are not in favor of “outsiders” reviewing the difficult practices of their work and a community contemplating such an action will usually encounter a push-back from police.

In response, some cities organize an inter-governmental team of police investigators from surrounding police agencies to automatically respond to all police shootings. To insure some impartiality, the investigator from the jurisdiction being investigated excuses him or herself from the team. Still, it’s police investigating police. To some that’s okay. There is some degree of separation. To others it is not.

In the City of Knoxville, there is a Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC). The committee was established in 2001 with the following mission, purpose and composition. It bears consideration:

 “[T]o provide the citizens of the City of Knoxville a civilian oversight committee to audit the discipline process and the policies and procedures of the Knoxville Police Department (KPD)…  

“The purpose is to strengthen the relationship between the citizens [and the police], to assure timely, fair and objective review of citizen complaints while protecting the individual rights of police officers, and to make recommendations concerning citizen complaints to the Chief of Police and to the Mayor… It is designed to be an independent agency with the authority to review and/or investigate allegations of misconduct filed by the public against the [police]… The Committee is composed of seven citizens… appointed by the Mayor for a term of three years. No member may serve more than two (2) consecutive terms.” [The Committee has a full-time Executive Director].

The problem of police review is not a new problem. Years ago, a paper from the Law School at Duke University captured the problem. It still speaks to it:

“[T]he need for accountability is not unique to police departments. But the recent efforts to establish efficient and responsive police review boards… bring into focus the underlying problems facing any institution which makes such an attempt. Chief among these problems is the difficulty of establishing a review mechanism which will be acceptable to both the community and the professionals involved. The two-pronged dilemma of legitimacy is rooted in the juxtaposition of beliefs held by the officers-who feel they are being betrayed when operations are scrutinized by outsiders-and the citizens-who contend that the solidarity of the force effectively precludes redress... [This] requires in the monitoring mechanism a delicate balance between suitable impartiality toward the force and understanding of the policeman’s [sic] difficult task.” (My emphases)

It is a difficult line for a community to walk. On one hand, the police feel they are not being supported (even “betrayed”) and on the other hand the community feels that the police are unable to police themselves. But the bottom line is this: how the police feel supported, how the community trusts its police, and the effectiveness of the review mechanism.

One watchdog group (among many), the National Center for Constitutional Studies, not only actively supports police but also provides the following arguments against outside citizen review and, in response, urges communities to organize “Support Your Local Police” movements. They propose the following arguments:

  1. Legal basis for most review boards is lacking.
  2. There is no proof of the need for such a review mechanism.
  3. These boards intimidate police.
  4. They subject police to a double-jeopardy.
  5. The idea of a civilian review board was created to subvert the police function.
  6. The motives of those who promote these boards are highly questionable.
  7. Advocates of these boards deliberately overstate the facts on police violence.

There are not easy answers here. But it would seem that as we go into more transparency and accountability of our more powerful social institutions (and the proliferation of hand-held video cell phones, in-squad car cameras, and even police with department-mandated personal cameras) we need to carefully think about how and how well we monitor the use of force by police in our society and what we do from time to time when police are seen to violate the trust we give them.

I have presented some ideas and concepts. I am convinced as Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice!”

Good luck and good “bending.” 

For further information:

International Chiefs of Police (IACP) guidelines on officer-involved shootings.

The American Civil Liberty (ACLU) sample model for civilian review boards.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recommendations regarding civilian review boards.


  1. One concern I keep reading about is that the community’s desire for an objectively impartial investigation process for police related deaths is leading some police officers to feel betrayed, their integrity is being questioned and their good duties, ignored. What this amounts to is, police officers’ feelings are being hurt by the community’s request for an externally sourced, objectively impartial agency to co-investigate and review matters of police-related excessive force and death. This is where mental health support, personal coaches and spiritual guides for police should come into play to address their emotional needs and strong, adverse reactions to boundaries. Laws for protecting citizens and police against police brutality, inappropriate force and for protecting the integrity of investigations should not be created around the unmet, emotional needs of police officers.


  2. Five law enforcement executives here in the Bosie Idaho (Three city police departments, One sheriff and the Idaho State Police) area agree that it is in the best interest of public safety and confidence to establish a Critical Incident Task Force (CITF) to conduct criminal investigations of officer-involved incidents which involve serious injury or death. Our governing rules state that the CITF investigation will take precedence over any agency internal or administrative investigation including, but not limited to, crime scene management and the interviewing of witnesses, victims or suspects; however, the CITF will coordinate the needs of the internal or administrative investigators to the degree that the criminal investigative procedure will allow. Having another agency assume the primary investigative role for conducting the criminal investigation has been identified as best practice. The CITF does not look at the policy aspects fo the incident. In Boise, both the police department and the Office of the Ombudsman conduct independent investigations and report back to the Mayor and Council. While I’m not in favor of civilian review boards, the Ombbudsman Office is an alternative for agencies looking for civilian oversight.


    1. I think this is a big improvement. A recent report out of Charlotte, NC, has the mayor questioning why, in the 16 year history of the civilian review board, has there never been a finding against police? See: The reality here is that the police have the most competency to investigate shootings. The problem is that citizens often question their findings. Yet we find in the Charlotte case a lengthy history of citizens NOT finding fault with police. It’s back to the old balance between citizen trust and police transparency/accountability.


      1. Thank you Chief Couper for your continued thoughtful insights into the challenges facing police and the communities they are charged to protect. But, I am deeply puzzled by your citation of the W. Cleon Skousen birthed National Center for Constitutional Studies, a radical right-wing group with deeply anti-semetic, racist and conspiratorially minded beginnings that construes itself today as an ascendent ultraconservative Mormon backed Tea Party affiliate.

        According to the Southern Poverty Law Institute, the NCCS counts as its allies the “John Birch Society, the ultraconservative “pro-family” group Eagle Forum, and the Oath Keepers, a group of ex-police and military personnel who publicly promise to resist orders if they find those orders at odds with their understanding of the Constitution.”

        This group preaches a conversion to theocracy via an apocalyptic destruction and remodeling of the United States in their particular image.

        Surely, there must more credible, less extremist examples of reasoned support of the status quo viewpoint, no?


      2. I was a far reach to show the other side of this intense struggle for public accountability whenever the state takes the life of a person. Perhaps that is why I am so against the death penalty — for ANY reason. In my life and career, I only know too well the many ways in which we can err. From what I see in the on-lime “comments” is precisely this polar approach. That’s why I cited the NCCS. And thanks for identifying them for who and what they are — hardly Constitutionalists!


      3. A civilian review of an investigation carried out by the friends and coworkers of the offending officer means civilians are reviewing data collected by people who have something to gain or lose in the outcome of the investigation. It’s pointless.

        Civilians should play a role in oversight since they are not bound to other police by uniform and badge. The structure for a civilian review board could follow Michael Bell’s idea using retired law enforcement professionals alongside, civilians with mental health and sociology professions.

        An objectively impartial investigation and a civilian review board are both needed. If I was prosecuted for a shooting, my husband and friends would not sit on the jury. No sane person would hire my friends or husband to investigate me for homicide. Police Officers are subject to the same weaknesses civilians are and I’m growing weary of being asked to trust police officers to investigate each other honestly because of a whole plethora of reasons that amount to how police feel. My response is, no matter how much oversight there is, civilians will always be required to have some amount of blind trust. But what we are currently being asked for is faith in police so that they feel valued for their risk. Let’s ditch the faith and pay them a lot more! Why have faith in a system with great potential for bias when we can trust a system that explores it’s potential for objectivity?


      1. There’s the problem. Who wants to judge police? They have such a difficult job…. I do have a preference for an Ombudsman in the Swedish model. Maybe that’s something that cities need to consider. I could see such a role in Madison. Any champions for this cause out there?


  3. How can you have retired police officers investigate shootings when they might have to call the police themselves one of these days and then the officers turn on them because they did not protect the officers? Frankly, asking the police to investigate themselves is like asking business people to police themselves in the “free market” system and we all know what happens when that occurrs.

    How does paying a cop more money is going to solve the problem of police investigaing themselves? Even if you have an Ombudsman based on the Swedish model, will the cops accept him/her even though that person is not a cop?

    Yes policing is a difficult job, but that doesn’t answer nor give the solution about investigating the police when they step out of line.


      1. If I could give many solutions or even one solution; however, as long as both sides (police and the community) can’t agreed on implementing and making them workable, I would be wasting my time

        Sorry if I am giving a negative attitude; however, in the last 30 years, the art of compromise and fair play has been completely ejected out of American society. It has been replace by “I am the boss”, “It is my way or the highway”, and “winner takes all.”


  4. Let’s face it folks no one wants to be reviewed when they don’t act right or obstruct and impede an Investigation.

    Especially when they not above the laws of the land but if you don’t you will pay for it later…

    Justice must not only be done but must also have be perceived to have been done and if one side or the other can control the outcome and keep it hidden that perception will not change a thing.

    It’s kind of like asking a bank robber to investigate himself when he’s caught in a mess… it’s crazy.

    If you want improvements in police then make them accountable and the world as we know it under that flawed system will improve.


  5. You also need judges and district attorneys who will not hesitate to hold the police accountable but that is not going to happen since they are beholden to the police for financial and poltical support plus they need the police to help win their cases.


  6. “I wish there was an easy answer to this problem”

    There is. First, the police should hold themselves to the same strict and merciless standards of the law they demand from civilians. Second, qualified immunity should be abolished because, again, police officers should be held to the same standards as civilians. Third, police self investigation is systemically corrupt by giving police officers every benefit of the doubt regardless of the facts.

    These things require discipline, integrity and hard work. Unfortunately for “we the people” the only thing you can depend on the police to do 100% of the time is to tell whatever lie is required to protect themselves from being prosecuted for crimes against the people they have sworn to serve and protect.

    As for most cops being good & decent, well, if those “good cops” don’t do anything to stop evil corruption then they are equally evil and corrupt. Basically, the police are cowards.


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