Under the microscope: Coping with the stress of an internal investigation, Part 1

Part 1 of a 2-part series

By Dr. Laurence Miller

You hope it never happens to you: You receive notice that you are being subject to an Internal Affairs investigation or similar administrative action.  For some officers, this comes as a complete shock; for others, it confirms what they’ve suspected has been brewing for a long time.  Either way, you expect that your whole life is about to change.

Of all the e-mails I receive at this website, probably the most frequent topic has to do with officers’ relationships to their own agencies, and this often includes disciplinary issues.  The purpose of this column is not to give you legal advice; in fact, later on I’ll discuss the importance of obtaining qualified legal counsel for your case.  I also make no judgment as to the validity of the case against you or about the nature of, and motives behind, the acts under investigation. 

Relatedly, I’m not here to second-guess the decisions of law enforcement administrators, the overwhelming majority of whom are honorable public servants, dedicated to the welfare of their personnel and their communities.  The primary purpose of this column is to provide practical information on coping with the psychological stress of an internal investigation or, in the case of a termination or other disciplinary action, the appeals process and its aftermath.

Who Gets Investigated and Why

It’s not just cops who find themselves under the microscope.  In my years of practice, I’ve counseled, advised, treated, and evaluated a range of professionals who have been investigated, disciplined, suspended, terminated, criminally prosecuted, lost their licenses, and/or been sued in civil court for a variety of reasons:

Medical doctors. Malpractice, substandard care, medication overprescription, personal abuse of legal drugs or illegal substances, sexual harassment or impropriety with patients or staff, improper business relationship with patients or staff, billing or insurance fraud, or other financial impropriety.

Mental health professionals.  Malpractice, improper sexual relationship with patients, improper business relationship with patients, billing fraud, suicide of a patient (family is distraught and angry and seeks to blame someone), failure to observe duty to warn or protect third parties (in states which have this statute), failure to report child abuse (all states require this).

Attorneys, judges, prosecutors.  Malpractice (usually substandard legal representation), violation of attorney-client privilege, subornation of perjury (instructing or helping a client to lie under oath), judicial misconduct, financial fraud, DUI charges.

Protective services or court personnel.  Child abuse investigators, guardians ad litem, or victim services personnel who misuse their authority.

Public safety personnel.  This usually includes firefighters, paramedics, and other non-police safety personnel.  Infractions typically involve incompetent or substandard practice on duty or illegal or embarrassing behavior while off-duty, occasionally direct mistreatment or abuse of a citizen during a call.

Clergy.  Usually sexual indiscretion and/or financial fraud.

Other.  Airline crew personnel (usually intoxication or failure to follow standard flight procedures), corporate or government managers or executives (almost anything, from sexual harassment, to financial fraud, to abusive management style).

What do these professionals have in common?  They all occupy positions of high public authority and trustSociety places great power and responsibility in their hands and so we hold them to a higher standard of personal and professional conduct than many other workers.  Professionals in these fields take the position that tolerating even a few bad apples can have devastating repercussions – practical, professional, political, financial – on the field as a whole.  Hence, to preserve the honor and integrity of these professions as a whole, investigators seem to apply special zeal in pursuing those who are suspected of breaking the rules.

Reasons for a Law Enforcement Internal Investigation

The specific reasons for a particular internal investigation are as myriad as the variety of ways cops can intentionally or inadvertently get themselves into trouble, but they usually fall into several categories:

Excessive force.This is usually defined as using greater force than is necessary to control the scene and protect the officer and others in the vicinity.  This may involve restraining, striking, pepper-spraying, tasing, shooting, or killing a suspect.  Often, these investigations hinge on the officer’s split-second judgment as to what was considered “necessary” in an unclear and dangerous situation.   

Abuse of authority.  This may range from accepting a pair of ballgame tickets from a grateful neighborhood merchant, to outright illegal intimidation and extortion of citizens in one’s patrol area.  It may also involve using one’s police authority for personal beefs, such as influencing neighbor disputes, business deals, or family law issues (e.g. divorce and custody cases, getting someone you don’t like fired, etc.).

Criminal activity.  Here, the officer is plainly engaging in activity he or she knows is illegal, such as drug dealing, criminal protection, extortion of criminals or citizens, and manipulating or interfering with the legal process; these activities sometimes overlap with the above category.  In other cases, it may be something less malevolent and even well-meaning, like helping a relative with a traffic citation or other misdemeanor charge, or lending some personal prescription pain medication to a friend with a toothache.

Substandard or improper performance. This generally involves such infractions as tardiness and absences, failure to complete paperwork, misuse of departmental equipment and property, insubordination and problems with chain of command, violation of standard operating procedures and safety guidelines, failure to complete patrols adequately, corrupt or otherwise unprofessional behavior (“conduct unbecoming”), and special unit infractions.  It can also involve more serious violations, such as sexual harassment of a colleague.  For minor infractions, it is typically not one or two of these incidents that leads to a formal investigation, but a sustained pattern of substandard or improper performance over time, often with one additional, more serious, offense which serves as the “tipping point” that prompts the probe.

Possible Consequences of an Internal Investigation

Although the details vary from agency to agency, there are several possible outcomes of a departmental internal investigation:

Exoneration.The charges are found to have insufficient basis to sustain them, the officer is thanked for his/her cooperation, and is returned to duty.  

Discipline. The investigating board concludes that the officer did do something wrong, but not severe enough to be terminated, so he/she is subject to any number of sanctions, from suspension without pay, to demotion in rank, to reassignment to other duties, to removal from a special unit, and so on.

Termination. The charges are serious enough to warrant the officer being fired from the police force.

Criminal prosecution. The case is serious enough to be turned over to local or federal prosecutors for further investigation that may lead to criminal charges being brought against the officer, most commonly in excessive force cases or where the officer was involved in outright criminal activity.

Civil lawsuit.  This is an action that may be taken by a third party who sues the officer – and typically the department and municipality – for physical, emotional, financial, or other damages.  Most commonly, the plaintiff is the subject (or a family member of a deceased subject) of an allegedly excessive police action (e.g. a beating, tasing, or shooting), or the direct or indirect victim of the officer’s criminal behavior (e.g. a man who was crippled in a car wreck with a drunk officer driving, or the family of a child who overdosed on illegal drugs sold by the officer).  Even if the department is not directly involved in this lawsuit, the officer’s personnel file and other records may be subpoenaed by plaintiff or defense counsel for use in the case.

Personal damage.  Ruined reputation, family crisis, financial disruption, limited employment prospects, media intrusion, mental health and substance abuse problems.

Psychological Reactions to an Internal Investigation

Again, while each officer will react idiosyncratically, based on his or her unique personality, temperament, and personal history, certain reaction patterns are common, and you may experience any combination of the following feelings:

Fear.Suddenly, your career is on the line – and, if you’re like most cops, so is your whole sense of personal and professional identity.  Most commonly, something like this has never happened to you and you don’t know what to expect.  There are good moments, when you put it out of your mind and hope for the best, and bad moments when you are close to panic.

Anger.  “I can’t believe I’m getting burned for doing my job!” is a typical reaction.  If you believe that your actions were justified or that the department is making a mountain out of a molehill because of political pressure, personal beefs, or just because the powers-that-be can’t or won’t understand the full story behind your conduct, then, sure, you’re gonna be pissed.  Even worse is when you believe that discipline was meted out unfairly: “I know a dozen guys/gals who’ve done the same thing as me – or far worse – and nothing happened to them.”  Fear and anger typically alternate in a swirling spiral of emotions that play games with your head.

Hopelessness/helplessness.  Sometimes you may just crash and feel something like, “What the hell, if this can happen, then what’s the point of anything?”  All your motivation feels sapped and you walk around like the living dead.  Then, boom – something will happen and the anger and panic come flooding in again.  These kinds of roller-coaster emotional cycles can prove debilitating over time.

Recklessless/revenge.  Sometimes, as a reaction against feeling like an impotent victim, you’ll get the urge to act out is some way: “Okay, they think I’m a friggin’ criminal, I’ll show them how bad I can really be.”  This is probably a subset of the angry response discussed above.  In these instances, it may be devilishly hard to fight the temptation to figuratively stick a thumb in the eye of your tormentors but, as I’ll discuss below, it is vitally important to keep such an impulse in check.

Guilt.  As much as you hate to admit it, maybe there was some way you contributed to your own plight.  Look, none of us is a complete angel and we’re all subject to human temptation and emotion.  So, okay, the skell jabbed you with a hidden syringe while you were trying to cuff him, so you gave him a complimentary asshole card redeemable for one free baton whack.  Or you did get overflirty with the traffic stop in the tight tank top and hot pants, and you thought you were doing her a favor by offering to let her bounce with a warning, as long as “you let me read you your rights” at that local tavern that evening, but she thought you were trying to get under those snug clothes and reported you for sexual harassment and attempted rape.  Or maybe you know you really did something wrong but never thought you’d get nailed because everybody does it and gets away with it but – just your damn luck – the mounted vehicle video or some perky citizen’s cell phone camera just happened to catch you in the act.  In such cases, fear, guilt, and anger, may all percolate and magnify your distress: “What was I thinking?” “How could I have been so stupid?” “Everybody does it and I get screwed!”

Clinical syndromes.  These may be physical, such as headaches, stomach problems, or sleep disruption; or psychological, e.g. panic disorder, depression, or PTSD.  Alcohol or substance abuse is a distinct risk, further compounding the problem.  If you are getting overwhelmed by the stress of the investigation to the point where you’re not able to function, it’s time to get help because you’re going to need to be as strong as possible to handle what’s ahead.

Next in Part 2: Coping strategies for dealing with an internal investigation.

To learn more about these topics:

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. 

NOTE:  If you have a question for this column, please submit it to editor@policeone.com.

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