How to Become an Internal Affairs Investigator

A police officer doing paperwork in an office
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Everybody makes mistakes at work from time to time, and police officers are no different. Most of the time, they can be corrected with coaching or counseling, an apology, and a sincere promise not to make the same mistake twice. Officers must be held to the highest ethical standards, though, and so sometimes those mistakes can rise to a level that requires a full internal investigation and possibly severe discipline. That's where a career as an internal affairs investigator comes in.

It's unfortunate, but sometimes good cops go bad and some issues simply can't be glossed over. When that occurs, most organizations use internal affairs investigators to find out what went wrong and whether anyone is to blame. A vital component to maintaining the public's trust in law enforcement and other criminal justice professions, internal investigators are there to provide accountability for departments.

The history of modern policing as we know it is still a relatively young one, and from the very beginnings of the modern police force, some officials and members of the public had misgivings about armed, uniformed officers patrolling the streets. Though much of those early concerns were alleviated over time, the potential for misconduct still remains. Ideally, there would be no need for internal affairs divisions. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, someone has to police the police.

When allegations and accusations of misconduct or wrongdoing are raised, internal affairs investigators are there to learn the truth and, believe it or not, protect both the accused officer and the department. Their primary purpose is to determine the truth, whatever it may be, and report the facts in an effort to uphold and maintain the integrity of the profession.

Roles of an Internal Affairs Investigator

Sometimes referred to as IA detectives or simply IA, internal affairs investigators typically work outside of the traditional command structure. Instead, IA investigators work within a division or office that reports directly to the chief, agency director or possibly even an independent commission. This helps remove some of the potential for corruption and goes a long way toward ensuring a thorough, accurate and independent investigation.

These offices may go by different names in different agencies, such as an internal affairs division, inspector general's office, public integrity unit or office of professional compliance. Regardless of the name, the function is essentially the same.

Much of the work of internal affairs investigators are done in an office setting. Depending on the size of the agency, some travel may be required, as in the case of a state or federal law enforcement agency, for example.

Internal investigators may be called upon to investigate violations of agency policy, allegations of misuse of public office, uses of force and control by officers, and accusations of criminal wrongdoing by members of their departments. The bulk of the work of an IA detective consists of interviewing victims, witnesses, and suspects and producing extensive investigative reports. They may respond to scenes, such as police shootings, and to sites where improper conduct is alleged to have occurred.

The job of an IA detective often includes:

  • Conducting interviews and interrogations
  • Writing investigative reports
  • Providing courtroom testimony
  • Testifying at employment hearings
  • Making recommendations to command personnel

IA detectives most often serve in the position of detective or investigator and will typically hold a rank of lieutenant or higher. This rank allows them to better direct their investigations and have some authority over other supervisory personnel in order to ensure compliance with requests.

Internal affairs detectives are often viewed with suspicion and derision by fellow offers. Because law enforcement tends to be a close-knit group, those who are tasked with investigating fellow cops are often distrusted by other members of the department. At the same time, members of the public tend to suspect internal investigators of covering up incidents of misconduct and protecting their own. This highlights the difficult job investigators have and the lonely road they walk.


Internal affairs investigators most often come from the ranks of police officers, and so they must meet the minimum qualifications in their state for becoming a police officer. This typically includes a minimum age requirement, as well as at least a high school education and certain prior work experience or military service.

Because investigators tend to hold management ranks, they may be required to have a college education. They will also need to have served in a law enforcement capacity for a few years prior to being eligible to promote into the positions.

IA detectives must have extensive knowledge of their respective agencies' policies and procedures, as well as their states' criminal laws and statutes pertaining to public servants, public corruption and misuse of office.

Investigators must also have extremely strong interpersonal communication skills because they deal with sensitive situations involving co-workers and fellow officers. They should be able to work independently and have a thick skin because they may face derision from fellow officers.

Job Potential

The importance of internal investigations is growing as the media and the public are increasingly demanding more accountability. It is likely that internal investigative divisions will continue to grow in manpower, which will open up more opportunities in the future.

Salary Information

Detectives in all classes earn a median salary of $60,000, though this depends greatly on the agency and location. Salaries range from as low as $35,000 to more than $95,000. IA investigators who serve in supervisory ranks may earn even more.

Is This Career Right for You?

The importance of internal investigators cannot be understated, but the profession demands smart, thoughtful, compassionate and ethical people. If you are a person with integrity and grit who is concerned with maintaining the public trust in its law enforcement officers and departments, serving as an internal affairs investigator can be a great way to achieve that goal and may just be the perfect criminology career for you.