Who Investigates Police Misconduct?

The question of who investigates police misconduct is vital for victims who have been subject to unconstitutional policing, especially those who want to collect compensation for harm. If you believe the police violated your rights and there was not a proper investigation and fair outcome, contact the Police Brutality Center. We can connect you with an experienced police misconduct lawyer to discuss your case and options.

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Richard Meadow

Richard "Rick" Meadow is an esteemed attorney with over 30 years of experience.

Content Last Updated: June 10, 2024

Police misconduct leads to an erosion of public trust, illegal arrests and detentions, injuries, and even death. Who investigates police misconduct in your city may determine whether you can trust the investigating body to be fair.

Almost all cities in the United States have a way for citizens to file complaints against police departments and individual officers. They are a vital component in holding police accountable for their actions. What happens after you file a complaint depends on where you live and whether federal agencies get involved.

What Is Police Misconduct?

Federal law defines police misconduct under 18 U.S.C. § 242. It prohibits police officers from depriving citizens of their rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed by the Constitution or other laws. 

States have their own police misconduct laws. These laws often incorporate language from Section 242 and Supreme Court decisions regarding police misconduct.

The Police Misconduct Provision of 34 U.S.C. § 12601 allows the Attorney General to file suit against a police department for engaging in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct. These probes pave the way for consent decrees and prohibitions on specific actions such as chokeholds.

Individuals cannot file suit under the Police Misconduct Provision but can cite it when asking the Department of Justice for help. Those who wish to sue the police can do so under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or relevant state laws.

What Are the Types of Police Misconduct?

Several types of police misconduct infringe on the constitutional rights of citizens. Some examples of police misconduct include:

These actions infringe on citizens’ rights guaranteed by state laws and the Constitution. For example, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The 14th Amendment provides equal protection of the law and forbids the government from depriving citizens of life, liberty, and property without due process.

Who Investigates Police Misconduct?

Several federal, state, or local agencies may investigate police misconduct claims. In some cases, several governmental levels examine these claims. In police misconduct cases involving constitutional claims, the federal government may intervene.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates police misconduct cases that involve federal civil rights violations. It may do so on its own in a high-profile case, at the invitation of a police department or other state official, or when family members or community activists urge it. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division primarily handles these investigations.

Internal Affairs Units

Most law enforcement agencies have an internal affairs division or force investigation unit to review police misconduct complaints and other issues. There is usually no civilian oversight of these units, and the police rarely publicly report the full findings of internal reviews. Therefore, there is little public trust in these units.

For example, the Paterson, New Jersey, Police Department’s internal affairs division rarely resolves complaints against police officers. These unresolved complaints include two against officers later charged by federal authorities. The state ordered the country prosecutor to take over the division in 2021 before eventually taking over the entire department itself.

State Police

Some cities pass along police misconduct investigations to state agencies. They do this to assure the public that the investigation will be fair and honest. For example, since 2020, the Missouri State Highway Patrol has handled multiple Kansas City Police Department shooting investigations.

Civilian Review Boards

Civilian volunteers appointed by the mayor or city council typically comprise civilian review boards. Though some added transparency exists when civilians review complaints, officeholders too often offer these positions as political favors. 

Civilian review boards are also often bound by privacy mandates issued by the police department or city. These measures limit the information they can release to the public. The findings of civilian review boards sometimes return to the department that is the subject of the investigation.

Independent Prosecutors

Independent prosecutors are typically appointed by the state attorney general or governor. Independent prosecutors are often more transparent than local ones, as they are not beholden to the police department. Thus, they can prioritize fairness and justice.

Specifically, local prosecutors often count on the police to collect evidence and testify in court. Independent prosecutors, on the other hand, do not rely on the cooperation of local police.

Is There a Difference Between an Internal and External Investigation of Police Misconduct?

Much of the general public doesn’t trust the police to conduct misconduct investigations. Without oversight, there’s a significant risk that they will hide details of specific cases, manipulate statistics, and issue reports based on false information.

This mistrust has resulted from the long history of police violence and corruption in the United States. Major cities across the U.S. have deserved reputations for police misconduct, including long patterns of racial profiling and shocking incidents of police brutality. Because of this history, the public has greater trust in external agencies overseeing police misconduct investigations.

How Can You File a Complaint Against the Police for Misconduct?

Many city police departments offer online forms and contact information for filing complaints on their websites. If you file a complaint this way, fill out all fields on the form completely and with as much detail as possible.

Depending on your circumstances, you may not feel comfortable walking into a police department to make a complaint. If your city does not allow you to file complaints online, consider talking to an experienced civil rights lawyer. They can help file your complaint and decide what to do if the process is unfair.

What Are Ways To Reform the Police So Less Misconduct Occurs?

Reforming police departments can help rebuild public trust and protect citizens’ rights. If the police don’t willingly change their practices, the federal government may have to initiate change.

The American Bar Association has recommended several ways the police and community can move forward, including:

Police Chief Magazine has proposed that education is the best solution for police misconduct. It cites several studies showing that officers who have received tertiary education have fewer civilian complaints overall and are less likely to use excessive force.

Citizen activist groups call for several changes, such as defunding the police. They believe that by reallocating spending on police departments toward other crisis management entities, police misconduct would likely decrease. For example, mental health professionals and social workers may be better equipped to handle mental health cases, which too often escalate into violence when armed police are involved.

Other recommendations for police reform include enhancing whistleblower protections within police departments, moving complaints out of Internal Affairs divisions, and increasing consent decrees to regulate departments with long histories of abuse and no signs of change.

Get Legal Help

If you are afraid to make a complaint against a police department or are unhappy with the resolution of a complaint you’ve already made, contact the Police Brutality Center. We may be able to connect you with a police misconduct lawyer, who can review your case and advise you on the next steps.

Citation Links
Richard Meadow. "Who Investigates Police Misconduct?." Police Brutality Center, Police Brutality Center, 29 January 2024, https://policebrutalitycenter.org/who-investigates-police-misconduct/