University of Minnesota police Lt. Troy Buhta rarely sees action as the internal affairs investigator of his department.
Buhta is responsible for looking into complaints filed against University police officers by civilians, but none have been filed since he took the job more than a year ago. There have been a total of 17 complaints since 2008.
Buhta is not disappointed by the inactivity.
“I think it means we’ve got some very responsible police officers,” he said.
Buhta learned to become an internal affairs investigator at the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute, he said.
The institute serves as a police training and consulting agency funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, said Executive Director Dennis Cusick. It specializes in internal affairs investigation.
“We walk them through all of the steps that are necessary to ensure an open, fair, competent and quick investigation,” Cusick said.
When complaints are filed, Buhta said he investigates them as if they were a crime: He interviews witnesses and the officer involved, collecting evidence and writing up a report, he said.
University police Chief Greg Hestness ultimately decides if the complaint is valid and deals out punishment if necessary, based on Buhta’s report.
Most complainants accuse officers of using profane language or excessive use of force, said University police Deputy Chief Chuck Miner, who has served as UMPD internal investigator in the past.
Police officers tend to get more complaints than other occupations, such as firefighters, because their job requires them to do things some civilians don’t like, Miner said.
“A lot of times it’s just more venting,” he said. “Nobody likes getting a ticket, and nobody likes getting arrested.”
Among the 17 complaints since 2008, eight were for unprofessional conduct, and five were for use of force.
Discipline for offending officers can range from verbal reprimands to firings, Miner said.
No officers have been found guilty of excessive use of force since 2008, Miner said, and officers are found to have used excessive profanity “once every two years.”
Ohio State University police had an even lower rate of complaints than UMPD, with only two since 2011 and one guilty finding.
UMPD has also added more cameras to the department throughout the years, Miner said, which has helped keep track of officer-civilian interactions.
All UMPD squad cars are equipped with cameras that monitor an officer’s actions on the streets, he said. In addition, cameras that can also record audio are located in the UMPD main lobby.
“A fair amount of our complaints start right in the lobby,” he said. “We find it very useful to listen to the audio and get a true account of what happened.”
The University of Iowa Police Department also relies heavily on video and audio evidence when investigating complaints, said Charles Green, assistant vice president and director of public safety.
University of Iowa’s police department officers use body cameras that are attached to the officer’s uniform to record confrontations with civilians, Green said.
The cameras help because complainants sometimes lie about an officer’s actions because they’re upset the officers gave them a ticket or arrested them, he said.
“They’ve really driven complaints down and almost eliminated them,” he said. “They also help keep our officers accountable.”
Police accountability practices are critical in building a trustworthy department, Cusick said.
“Police departments live and die with public trust,” he said. “If you fail in being able to investigate your own allegations of misconduct, the agency becomes destroyed.”