Pittsfield Police Advisory Get Familiar With Internal Affairs Process
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — As the Police Advisory and Review Board slowly ramps up, Police Chief Michael Wynn led the group through the internal affairs process.
Wynn said he expects cases to be coming to the board soon for review and at the next meeting the group intends to vote officers before the committee takes on a more active role in the meetings. Tuesday marked the committee's third meeting since being formed and one of its duties will be to review closed internal affairs reports and field citizen complaints.
Wynn focused much of Tuesday's meeting on the policies and process for how complaints about officer conduct are handled. He provided copies of the current policy, but did mention that the department is revamping its entire policy manual so there may be future changes.
"Internal affairs really has two key components, one of which everybody is the most familiar is the investigation of allegation of employee misconduct. While that is one most are familiar with, from a management point of view it is the least important function," Wynn said.
"The most important function is identifying gaps or the voids in existing policies as part of our continuous improvement process."
It starts with a formal complaint. Wynn said often citizens will talk to an officer about an incident but just talking doesn't trigger a review process. He said officers are told to offer the complaint process to residents.
A supervisor has the first bite of the apple. The supervisor would talk to the complainant and see if there is an opportunity for an informal resolution, such as just solving a miscommunication or explaining things the citizen may not be aware. Wynn said even if that does resolve the issue, it is documented.
If the citizen wants to proceed then a formal complaint is lodged. Wynn added that sometimes an investigation will be launched internally as well, and supervisors will fill out the same form for the file.
"Our citizen's complaint form is our first line of intake. We would prefer that that form be used all of the time but especially for anonymous complaints or complaints that come over the phone or sometimes via email, they aren't going to use the form. At that point we get the information taken, transcribed from a voicemail or copied from an email, and we fill out the form," Wynn said.
The chief said those complaints can be anonymous, but anonymity poses challenges in getting detailed information about the time, location, and incident. Nonetheless, an anonymous complaint receives the same treatment.
"It is very important for the public to know that anonymous complaints are taken very seriously and given the same process so if anybody in the community is afraid of identifying themselves, they need to know their anonymous complaint is still being evaluated," committee member Drew Herzig said.
Those forms are available at the station, at the new outreach center on Columbus Avenue, in the mayor's office, and soon to be in the hands of committee members. Wynn said the intake process also includes a place for supervisors to make additional comments about the complaint.
"If the complaint is filed when the party is intoxicated, then we need to know that. If the complaint is filed in retaliation for an arrest, we need to know that," Wynn said.
The complaint gets sent to police chief's office for screening. Wynn said the program used to track those complaints has built-in flags for such as noting the similarity of complaints or whether an officer is getting a high number of complaints.
"The vast majority of the complaints are frivolous," Wynn said.
Some cases are tossed out because they lacked bearing. Others are referred to the unit to handle. Those tend to be minor infractions and statements are taken from the officers and the complaining party for the file.
And then there are ones sent to shift commanders or the operation bureau to fully investigate. Those tend to be more egregious violations of misconduct. And that is when things get tricky.
"Internal affairs needs to protect employees rights as well as due process. Most of the time, at the point we screen the complaint, the employee is going to be told that a complaint has been received and they are under investigation. They are on notice that this is occurring," Wynn said.
"There are occasions, and it says unless determined by the chief that disclosure could jeopardize an investigation, that we will order a no-notice investigation."
Serious misconduct allegations can lead to an officer being notified of an investigation and put on leave; Wynn also noted that shift supervisors have the ability to send officers home when something happens. It is rare, he said, that no notice is given and then only in cases where it could jeopardize the investigation, when the conduct has been going on for some time, and there is no risk to the public.
Not only are officers informed of a internal affairs case but are read their rights, which isn't the same as in a criminal case. Wynn said sometimes the district attorney's office does take on a criminal investigation so the right not to provide self-incriminating evidence becomes a thin line as to what will be eligible for court and what wouldn't be.
"They don't have the same rights that you and I would have in a criminal investigation. They are obligated to cooperate with us," Wynn said.
Wynn added that there are differences in investigation as well. The department can order the employee to take drug or alcohol test, be photographed or stand in a lineup, take a polygraph test, and provide financial statements and his or her desks, lockers, and vehicles can be searched without a warrant. Additional misconduct charges could be filed should an officer not comply with the investigation.
Once that is completed, the department will make a finding of either sustained (the complaint was valid), not sustained (there was inadequate evidence), unfounded (the allegations were baseless), exonerated (the complaint was unjustified), or filed (the complaint was closed because of a lack of information from the complainant).
"With minor stuff, we hope to see these closed quickly, in the matter of days. If it a significant one, then there are 10-day updates that are provided," Wynn said.
That concludes the internal affairs process and disciplinary questions come into play. Wynn said he has the ability to suspend an employee for up to five days on his own but any discipline above that must go through a Civil Service hearing to come to a conclusion.
But beyond the focus on one single officer, Wynn said many times the process identifies lack of training or environmental issues that can be improved. He said in some cases an officer did the correct thing but the training may have no been up to par and the internal affairs can identify areas for additional training.
Or it could be environmental. Wynn said he had one investigation in which a person had suffered burns while under arrest. Upon review, Wynn claimed there was a struggle as the person allegedly tried to get away from officers inside the police station and when the officer attempted to control the person, the individual was pushed into an exposed steam pipe. Wynn said the officer was in the right in that case and was using proper technique, but the pipe shouldn't have been exposed. He said the pipe later got insulated to avoid that happening again.
With a better understanding of the process, the committee will soon be expected to take a more active role in reviewing cases to provide an outsider's perspective. The cases will have already been closed and the discipline undisclosed but they are expected to provide insight on fielding complaints and how the cases are being handled.
Tags: police advisory, police investigation, police misconduct,
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