The Role of First-Line Supervisors in Internal Affairs Operations

In many law enforcement agencies, fundamental operational tasks are often assigned exclusively to a relatively small number of officers who do not have the resources to accomplish their objectives without help from others throughout the agency.  Recruiting, for instance, should be an agency-wide undertaking in which all officers see themselves as playing an important role in recruiting the next generation of officers.  A small number of designated recruiters simply cannot succeed in the mission in the absence of agency-wide support. 

Community policing is another area in which a small number of chosen officers cannot successfully implement a philosophy that should be demonstrated in every aspect of agency operations, from patrol to investigations.  This problem of over-specialization, whereby the vast majority of officers feel little or no responsibility to contribute to fundamental areas of operation, is one that deserves attention from law enforcement leaders across the country.

In analyzing case studies of disastrous outcomes in the realm of internal affairs, this problem of over-specialization, coupled with a lack of ownership by first-line supervisors, is a common theme.  The detectives assigned to the Internal Affairs Division or to the Professional Standards Division are too often tasked with identifying potential misconduct, conducting the investigations and making recommendations for possible discipline without the active assistance of first-line supervisors in the field.  The sentiment often seems to be that the job of an FTO or sergeant is not to identify problems as early as possible and address them. Rather, it seems to be that once a problem is significant enough, internal affairs will deal with it.

The obvious problem with this mentality is that it fails to take into account the fact that, by the time misconduct issues are serious enough to generate attention from internal affairs, it may be too late to effectively address the problem and significant damage may already have been done.  This damage is often in the form of harm to members of the public, the officer and the community’s trust in the agency. 

Ultimately, the questions that are posed to leaders in a law enforcement agency when allegations of police misconduct emerge are: What did you know?  When did you know it?  What did you do?  It seems highly unlikely that members of the public are interested in the internal finger-pointing that may take place between the chief’s office, Internal Affairs and sergeants in the field in regard to who dropped the ball

Ultimately, internal affairs operations are vital for the agency as a whole and leaders throughout the department.  First-line supervisors must be engaged in “inspecting what they expect” and having the difficult conversations as early as possible.  Allowing an officer to develop a reputation for discourtesy, poor report writing or other minor performance issues without confronting the problem—all in the name of “that’s not my job”—is a proven recipe for legal liability and public trust disasters.

Police misconduct will always occur to some degree, in some shape or form, because officers are human beings and are not infallible.  The amount of damage done by instances of police misconduct is largely dictated by how proactive or reactive the department’s leaders were in recognizing their duty to intervene.  That duty begins long before an excessive use of force incident or case of citizen abuse is unfolding on their watch.  Agencies that identify and address problems—even those involving serious misconduct—before the local media or social media brings them to light, are able to demonstrate that, in spite of calls to the contrary, the agency is capable and willing to “police themselves”.  This is the ultimate mission of internal affairs operations.

Many of these issues were discussed at length in the 2022 report commissioned by the City of Baltimore, Anatomy of the Gun Trace Task Force: Its Origins, Causes and Consequences.[1] The quotes below from that report are quite telling.

“The historical failures of the accountability function are starkly illustrated in the experiences of the former BPD members who were prosecuted.  Several of them engaged in misconduct that should have ended their BPD careers, but did not do so because of profound weaknesses in the system for investigating, charging, and adjudicating allegations of misconduct.  Instead of suffering the consequences for their actions, these officers learned that there were inadequate institutional constraints and guardrails to prevent them from engaging in misconduct or punishing them if they did.”[2]

Some supervisors have cultivated plausible deniability for the actions of their unit members. They have spent too little time directly observing personnel under their command, blaming the volume of paperwork and administrative tasks for absorbing their time. They have been more concerned about the bottom-line numbers than about how those numbers are generated.”[3]

Similarly, in late 2020, the Minneapolis Police Department and City of Minneapolis publicly acknowledged that their Internal Affairs Division would begin working closely with city attorneys to ensure that internal investigations were conducted thoroughly and lawfully in order to minimize the risk of legitimate discipline being overturned at arbitration.  This decision came following years of internal failures to impose discipline in a fair, consistent and timely manner, which led to many cases of police misconduct going unpunished.[4] 

Beyond the problems within the Internal Affairs Division in Minneapolis, there were also cases of first-line supervisors giving positive performance evaluations to officers while they were simultaneously being investigated for serious offenses that could result in termination.  There were various other examples of supervisors’ failure to identify and document conduct issues that contributed to arbitration decisions overturning officer suspensions and terminations.  For example, after a rookie officer shot and killed an unarmed woman who had called 911 for help, it was revealed that serious red flags about that officer had been identified and documented by FTOs and sergeants during the first months of the recruit’s career. Unfortunately, these warnings were never addressed by the department’s leadership.[5]

Internal affairs training should be offered to first-line supervisors in policing, not just those who are designated as “internal affairs” on their business cards.  First-line supervisors should have a familiarity with the process of receiving complaints, or proactively directing complaints generated by themselves or other officers.  They should be made aware of the investigative standards and the due process considerations that are an integral part of agency discipline that is legally and ethically defensible.  In many cases, the more isolated the Internal Affairs Division’s work becomes, the more harmful it is to agency operations.

Baltimore and Minneapolis are only two prominent examples of a much broader problem:  The failure to recognize that, in addition to those designated to work in the Internal Affairs Division, first-line supervisors and field training officers are crucial to a functional internal system of accountability.  In the midst of calls to increase civilian oversight, there is likely no better way to defend an agency’s ability to police itself than to ensure that all first-line supervisors are acutely aware of their vital role in the internal affairs functions of their departments.

About the Author

Matt Dolan is a licensed attorney who specializes in training and advising public safety agencies in matters of legal liability, risk management and ethical leadership.  His training focuses on helping agency leaders create ethically and legally sound policies and procedures as a proactive means of minimizing liability and maximizing agency effectiveness.  

A member of a law enforcement family dating back three generations, he serves as both Director and Public Safety Instructor with Dolan Consulting Group. 

His training courses include Recruiting and Hiring for Law EnforcementConfronting the Toxic OfficerPerformance Evaluations for Public SafetyMaking Discipline Stick®Supervisor Liability for Public Safety, Confronting Bias in Law Enforcement and Internal Affairs Investigations: Legal Liability and Best Practices.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.  The information herein is presented for informational purposes only.  Individual legal cases should be referred to proper legal counsel.


[1] Steptoe & Johnson, LLC (2022). Anatomy of the Gun Trace Task Force Scandal: Its Origins, Causes, and Consequences. Washington, DC: Steptoe & Johnson.

[2] Steptoe & Johnson LLP, Anatomy of the Gun Trace Task Force, iv.

[3] Steptoe & Johnson LLP, Anatomy of the Gun Trace Task Force, xxv.

[4] Jaconsen, Jeremiah (2020, December 29). Minneapolis Police Disciplinary Changes. Minneapolis KARE 11 News:

[5] Fox 9 News (2018, September 6). Prosecutors: Mohamed Noor’s work history shows ‘reckless disregard for human life’. Minneapolis-St. Paul Fox 9 News:; Jany, Libor (2018, September 6). Filing: Mohamed Noor raised red flags among psychiatrists, training officers; Report shows psychiatrists, officers had their concerns. Minneapolis Star Tribune,

Does Verbal De-Escalation Training Work and What is the Evidence?

Activists and politicians are often quick to demand specific changes in police practices before there is firm evidence to support the effectiveness of their proposals. A prominent example is found in the call for “de-escalation training”, despite the fact that there are many different (and sometimes conflicting) definitions of what “de-escalation training” actually means.

As providers of verbal de-escalation training at Dolan Consulting Group, we read the positive course evaluations from the trainees who attend our courses. We also frequently receive feedback from law enforcement officers whose careers have been made better and safer as a result of our verbal de-escalation training. But what do we know about the impact de-escalation training has on the outcomes of interactions with the public? Does de-escalation training result in decreased incidences of violence? Are students leaving the training with useful tools to do their jobs better and more safely? What does the social scientific evidence reveal? 

General Studies of De-escalation Training

Studies that evaluate de-escalation training within a law enforcement  environment are very recent – only occurring within the last four years. Before these law enforcement research studies existed, a research team from the University of Cincinnati, headed by Dr. Robin Engel, examined all of the existing research on de-escalation training in fields other than law enforcement.[1] This team located and examined every scientific study available that evaluated some form of de-escalation training. They defined de-escalation training as any program, “based on a process designed to defuse situations and reduce the likelihood of physical or verbal confrontation between parties.”[2] Also, in order to be considered in their study, the training had to involve only de-escalation training, thus they excluded evaluations of mental health crisis intervention team training, of which verbal de-escalation is only one small part.

The research team found 64 studies that evaluated the impact of verbal de-escalation training. The studies ranged in date from 1976 to 2016. A total of 86% of the studies involved verbal de-escalation training for medical staff in hospitals, nursing homes and psychiatric facilities. The remaining 14% of studies took place within schools, psychological counseling centers and business workplaces. There were 58 different verbal de-escalation training programs across the 64 studies, so nearly every study encountered a different type of de-escalation training program.

Nevertheless, there were similarities across the programs, as 63% included instruction on types and causes of aggression, and warning signs of impending aggression. Approximately 56% of the training programs discussed techniques and strategies for handling someone who is already aggressive, while 41% also addressed methods for defusing situations before someone becomes aggressive. The training curricula ranged in length from a few hours to several days. All of the training involved classroom instruction and nearly all of the  training programs also included role-play scenarios.[3]

Most of the studies surveyed the participants before and after the training course in order to measure their perceptions of the training they received. Of those studies in these various non-law enforcement professions, about 90% of participants perceived they had greater confidence and knowledge for handling confrontation situations after the training and more than 87% were satisfied with the training. About 60% indicated that they were safer after the training and more than 78% indicated they experienced less violence at work after the training.[4]

Approximately one third of the studies also evaluated actual behavioral outcomes after the training, such as documenting whether de-escalation techniques were actually used by participants, changes in the number of incidents of violence and changes in injuries from violence. Of the studies that measured whether or not de-escalation techniques were actually used, 92% found that de-escalation techniques were regularly employed after the training. Of the studies that measured incidents of physical violence, 52% of the studies found a decrease in the number of violent incidents after the training and 100% of the studies found a decrease in the severity of violent incidents after the training.

Additionally, 77% of the studies found fewer employee and client injuries occurred after the training.[5] This evidence suggests that general de-escalation training in medical, psychiatric, school and workplace settings results in fewer—and less serious—incidents of violent behavior in these settings. 

Evaluations of Police De-escalation Training

Regarding the impact of de-escalation training within a law enforcement agency, only a few studies exist and all of these studies are very recent. While we look forward to further studies on the topic of verbal de-escalation training’s impact on law enforcement officers in the future, the studies that are currently available show striking results.

Halifax Regional Police Department (2017)

A research team from the RAND Corporation evaluated the impact of de-escalation training on officers with the Halifax Regional Police Department in Canada during 2017. The patrol personnel of this department received a brief, 3.5 hour verbal de-escalation course. This half-day training included classroom instruction, followed by role-play scenarios designed to have the attendees practice the techniques taught within the classroom.[6]

After the training was complete, the research team randomly called on officers to participate in videotaped training scenarios with police instructors who simulated agitated citizens. Before the de-escalation training took place, 64 officers participated in these videotaped scenarios and served as a comparison group to see if the training had changed officer behaviors. Compared to the officers who had not received the de-escalation training, the officers who had received the training were significantly more likely to utilize the techniques taught in the  training. Specifically, the trained officers were significantly more likely to greet the citizen in the scenario, introduce themselves and their agency, repeat the citizen’s statements back to the citizen in a reflective manner and explain the citizen’s options. The trained officers were 6% less likely to use force in the scenarios. When force was used, the trained officers took 7% longer before resorting to the use of force.[7]

The researchers then examined the actual incidences of use of force and citizen complaints recorded by the department. Over the five years before the training, the department averaged 2.68 use of force incidents per 1,000 calls for service. During the year after the training of the patrol personnel, the department averaged 2.63 use of force incidents per 1,000 calls for service. This was a decline of 2%. Over the five years prior to the training, the department averaged 48 citizen complaints per year, but in the year following the training, only 43 complaints were received. This was a decline of approximately 7%. With each officer receiving only a few hours of training, small decreases in use of force incidents and citizen complaints were revealed.[8]  

Louisville Metropolitan Police Department (2019)

A research team headed by Dr. Robin Engel from the University of Cincinnati, examined the impact of verbal de-escalation training on the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky. Over the course of several months during 2019, all of the sworn personnel employed by this agency received de-escalation training. Each employee received two full days of training that included both classroom instruction and role-play scenarios for the purposes of honing the skills taught in the classroom.[9]

The personnel who received the training were surveyed before the training and again three more times after receiving the training. A year after receiving the training, greater than 60% of the personnel reported having used de-escalation tactics at least once in their last 60 days of work. Compared to their survey responses before receiving the training, the personnel demonstrated significantly more positive attitudes about the usefulness of de-escalation techniques.

Using official agency statistics, the research team compared the years before and after the training. It found that in the period after the training, use of force incidents declined by 28%, citizen injuries from use of force declined by 26% and officer injuries declined by 36%. Although the year after the training included the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also included the period of prolonged protests and civil unrest in Louisville surrounding the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. In addition, Louisville experienced more than a 100% increase in responses to violent crimes between 2019 and 2020. Therefore, it is unlikely that these reductions in incidents and injuries were due to reductions in the number of police-citizen contacts during the pandemic.[10]

Tempe Police Department (2019)

A research team headed by Dr. Michael White from Arizona State University evaluated the impact of verbal de-escalation training on the Tempe Police Department in Arizona. One hundred officers from the department’s patrol division were selected for the study and half of these personnel completed a two-day verbal de-escalation training program involving both classroom instruction and role-play scenarios. The entire sample of officers was surveyed before, as well as one  year after, the training. The survey’s purpose was to see if the training changed officer behaviors and determine if the trained officers’ responses differed from the officers who did not receive the de-escalation training.[11]

The research team found that both the trained and untrained officers reported positive perceptions of verbal de-escalation tactics, and both groups frequently used these tactics. The officers who had completed the training shared with their peers the techniques that they had learned and the untrained officers also learned from watching the trained officers interact with citizens. Nevertheless, the officers who had received the formal training were still more likely than the untrained officers to use de-escalation tactics, engage in more officer safety techniques (such as maintaining distance and using the contact and cover system), engage in compromise with citizens and exercise a willingness to walk away from situations.[12] 


The impact of verbal de-escalation training has been evaluated in law enforcement, hospital, educational, business and psychiatric settings. Despite the fact that these evaluations have included training courses of different lengths and different types of curricula, the findings are consistent. Verbal de-escalation training provides individuals with knowledge, tools and tactics that give them greater confidence and control in situations involving interpersonal conflict.

While de-escalation training does not eliminate all conflict and violence, by applying the knowledge, tools and tactics they learned, individuals can defuse more conflict situations that might otherwise have led to violence. The existing evidence is growing and consistently reveals the same conclusions.

De-escalation training has been associated with decreases in violence, the severity of the violence and injuries resulting from violence. Curricula and quality may vary, as is the case in any area of training, but the available research clearly indicates that training in verbal de-escalation benefits contact professionals, including law enforcement officers. As common sense would dictate, the research proves that training nurses, teachers and police officers in “how to talk to people” makes a positive difference for them and the people they encounter in their workplaces. 

Armed with this knowledge, it would seem that any people-intensive industry or profession would be well-served to prioritize routine training in verbal de-escalation skills.

About the Author

Richard R. Johnson, PhD, is a trainer and researcher with Dolan Consulting Group. He has decades of experience teaching and training on various topics associated with criminal justice, and has conducted research on a variety of topics related to crime and law enforcement. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration and criminal justice from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana University, with a minor in social psychology. He possesses a master’s degree in criminology from Indiana State University. He earned his doctorate in criminal justice from the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati with concentrations in policing and criminal justice administration.

Dr. Johnson has published more than 50 articles on various criminal justice topics in academic research journals, including Justice Quarterly, Crime & Delinquency, Criminal Justice & Behavior, Journal of Criminal Justice, and Police Quarterly. He has also published more than a dozen articles in law enforcement trade journals such as the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Police Chief, Law & Order, National Sheriff, and Ohio Police Chief. His research has primarily focused on police-citizen interactions, justice system responses to domestic violence, and issues of police administration and management. Dr. Johnson retired as a full professor of criminal justice at the University of Toledo in 2016.

Prior to his academic career, Dr. Johnson served several years working within the criminal justice system. He served as a trooper with the Indiana State Police, working uniformed patrol in Northwest Indiana. He served as a criminal investigator with the Kane County State’s Attorney Office in Illinois, where he investigated domestic violence and child sexual assault cases. He served as an intensive probation officer for felony domestic violence offenders with the Illinois 16th Judicial Circuit. Dr. Johnson is also a proud military veteran having served as a military police officer with the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard, including active duty service after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Before that, he served as an infantry soldier and field medic in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard.


[1] Engel, R. S., McManus, H. D., & Herold, T. D. (2020). Does de-escalation training work? A systematic review and call for evidence in police use-of-force reform. Criminology & Public Policy, 19(4), 721-759.

[2] Engel et al. (2020), p. 727.

[3] Engel et al. (2020), pp. 728-730.

[4] Engel et al. (2020), pp. 731-734.

[5] Engel et al. (2020), pp. 734-736.

[6] Giacomantonio, C., Goodwin, S., & Carmichael, G. (2020). Learning to de-escalate: evaluating the behavioral impact of Verbal Judo training on police constables. Police Practice and Research, 20(4), 401-417.

[7] Giacomantonio et al. (2020), pp. 401-417.

[8] Giacomantonio et al. (2020), pp. 412-414.

[9] Engel, R. S., Corsaro, N., Isaza, G. T., & McManus, H. D. (2020). Examining the Impact of Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) De-escalation Training for the Louisville Metro Police Department: Initial Findings. University of Cincinnati Center for Police Research and Policy.

[10] Engel, R. S., Corsaro, N., Isaza, G. T., & Motz, R. (2021). Examining the Impact of Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) De-escalation Training for the Louisville Metro Police Department: Supplemental Findings. University of Cincinnati Center for Police Research and Policy.

[11] White, M. D., Mora, V. J., Orosco, C., & Hedberg, E. C. (2021). Moving the needle: can training alter officer perceptions and use of de-escalation? Policing: An International Journal, 44(3), 418-436.

[12] White et al. (2021), 418-436.