Is it necessary for an oversight authority to conduct investigations?


A. In the world of civilian oversight, oversight systems come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes—much depends on what the community is hoping to achieve through oversight and what it can invest in the new agency. Many civilian oversight agencies are hybrids with a variety of features that may or may not include the ability to conduct investigations that are independent from the law enforcement agencies that seek to improve (create a link to FAQ #2).  To varying degrees, an oversight agency can be structured for a specific function:  investigating, reviewing, or auditing.

B. The investigative function tends to be implemented when there is a high level of community mistrust in the local law enforcement agency’s ability or willingness to conduct thorough and impartial investigations.  Under this model, the oversight agency is specifically empowered to conduct independent investigations and must have access to the relevant documents, files, and electronic databases of the law enforcement agency.  Ideally, an oversight agency with investigative authority should employ specially trained investigators to conduct interviews, acquire evidence, and write reports.  Therefore, the funding necessary to hire a qualified investigator should be made available in the oversight agency’s annual budget.  Qualification standards for oversight investigators can be found here [create link to Wechtner’s guidelines].  In addition to independently collecting evidence and interviewing complainants and witnesses, an oversight agency with an investigative function should have direct access to officers for the purpose of conducting interviews or the ability to sit in on an interview and ask questions during the officer’s interview with internal affairs. 

C. Under the review systems of civilian oversight, sworn officers from inside the policing agency conduct the investigation and submit the closed investigative files and report to the oversight body which then analyzes the quality of the investigation and may then make recommendations or request further investigation.  Agencies based solely on the review model typically do not have independent investigative authority nor the capacity or resources to conduct independent investigations. 

D. Similarly, agencies that feature ongoing auditing may or may not include investigative authority.  In some situations an oversight agency has investigative powers when needed, but it is not necessary for the oversight authority to conduct separate investigations for every complaint.  An oversight agency’s mission usually involves tracking a complaint from intake to outcome to identify troubling or unconstitutional patterns and practices for the purpose of recommending policies and training that will correct the problem.  Sometimes, simply examining relevant data provided by the policing agency can identify a problem.  In some instances, separate and independent investigations may be required to ensure the accuracy of the data being analyzed or when public confidence in the police to investigate themselves in a specific matter is absent. In some cases, an oversight agency may find it necessary to construct an investigative method that acquires or produces new information that the policing agency does not have or is unwilling to release to the oversight agency. 

E. What is necessary in any investigation is that it is, and is perceived to be, timely, objective, unbiased and thorough.