The terms “use of force investigation” and “internal affairs investigation” are often used interchangeably. After all, they both tend to evoke anxiety among officers and assumptions by the public. And in many departments, it’s the same internal affairs or professional standards unit that investigates both. But use of force investigations and internal affairs (IA) investigations are different, and it’s important not to treat them as one and the same.
“These terms often get combined — conflated — and I sometimes think that’s a mistake,” said Arif Alikhan, president of TacLogix Inc., a policy and technology consultancy to public safety agencies, during Axon’s recent Use of Force Reporting and Internal Affairs Investigations webinar.
Use of force investigations are conducted as a matter of course to determine if an officer was justified in using force — whether non-lethal, less-lethal or lethal — during an incident. A use of force investigation doesn’t presume an officer did anything wrong — but it could reveal officer misconduct, if there was any.
Internal affairs investigations, on the other hand, arise out of complaints by citizens, supervisors, other officers, etc. They are done to determine if an officer or other agency employee violated policy or the law.
There can be crossover
Of course, just because use of force investigations and IA investigations have different definitions doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t cross over.
“A use of force investigation as a preliminary matter is not investigated on the administrative side as if the officer has done something wrong. That isn’t the presumption, nor should it be,” Alikhan said. “Of course, that doesn’t mean if during that investigation something is found that’s wrong, either with policy or the law, that there shouldn’t be some action taken.”
Some use of force investigations lead to IA investigations. Take, for instance, one use of force investigation that occurred in Anaheim, Calif. The incident that came under review took place at 1:30 a.m. when an officer on patrol in a known gang area attempted to conduct a traffic stop on four bicyclists, who were riding without lights and ran a stop sign. One of the bicyclists made a quick U-turn and would not yield to the officer. The officer then saw the suspect reach under his shirt and pull out something “dark” that the officer believed to be a handgun.
The officer used his patrol vehicle to bump the suspect’s bike in order to stop him. The suspect slid off the bike to a standing position. He was facing away from the officer with his right hand out of sight, and then looked over his shoulder at the officer. Fearing the suspect was about to shoot, the officer fired one round, striking the suspect in the arm. The suspect later told inmates at the jail (conversations which were caught on audio and video recording) that he threw his gun prior to the officer shooting him. It was recovered near the scene.
After a use of force investigation, it was determined that the officer was justified in shooting the suspect. Anaheim Police Department, however, took issue with the way in which the officer used his patrol vehicle to stop the bicyclist. This could have led to an IA investigation for the officer, except that APD didn’t have any specific policy in place regarding fleeing bicycles. Instead, it resulted in the department providing more training. The department concluded “that research should be conducted and curriculum created that addressed tactics and decision-making skills related to the apprehension of fleeing bicyclists.”
The need for thorough investigations
The Anaheim example illustrates the need for thorough use of force and IA investigations, as well as how agencies can learn from such incidents.
“I truly believe that it’s important to do a thorough investigation, not just to find out what happened and why, but also to learn,” Alikhan said. “What can be done — differently or the same — to make people safer and maybe even avoid use of force, especially use of force where the officer was in jeopardy?”
But to be able to conduct a thorough investigation, you need to have a complete record. After all, it’s generally not the incident that’s put on trial, but the record of the incident. That’s where technology comes in.
A 2018 study of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department patrol officers found the allegations in complaints against officers wearing body-worn cameras (BWCs) were less likely to be sustained compared to allegations against officers without BWCs. And the complaints were resolved more quickly when officers used BWCs — by about 15 days. That’s 15 days sooner that your department can get to the truth of what happened.
BWCs can provide an added benefit when it comes to use of force and IA investigations: eliminating the incidents that prompt them in the first place. Another study conducted with the Rialto Police Department in California showed both citizen complaints and use of force incidents decreased when officers were equipped with BWCs.
Using technology to make documentation easier
Axon Standards, a module of Axon Records, was specifically designed to meet the unique needs of internal affairs and professional standards units. By uniting digital evidence from BWCs, in-car cameras, citizen devices and more, Axon Standards creates a more accurate and holistic view of an incident — with digital evidence at the heart of the record. That means you have the best possible picture of what happened in one place, eliminating common evidence gathering roadblocks that can slow the investigation down and potentially cause the omission of critical evidence to an investigation.
Plus, streamlined report writing, clear task delegation and robust data analytics actually makes the process more simple.
Contact Axon to learn more about how Axon Standards can help your agency with use of force and internal affairs investigations.