In fiction there's nothing worse than a dirty cop, yet internal affairs are never the good guys

A lot of American movies about cops or law enforcement have dirty cops as the main antagonist. These guys are often portrayed as the worst of the worst, yet internal affairs, the guys whose jobs it is to catch dirty cops, are never the good guys. At best they’re just a bunch of jerks that get in the way of the hero solving the case, and at worst they are the evil scum doing the crimes.

It is my understanding that the American population is in general more mistrusting of law enforcement than Europeans, so why aren’t IA officers ever the heroes in fiction? Has there ever been made a movie or TV-series about internal affairs?

It’s something I’ve been wondering for some time.

I don’t think they’re usually viewed as bad guys, the main characters just don’t like them.

I know that in the US military, Military Police are generally looked upon negatively by the rest of the troops as well. I think it’s a machismo thing. You sacrifice yourself for the average citizen, or for your country, and yet you’ve still got people giving you the evil eye, making assumptions that you’re just as bad a person as everyone else.

There was at least one movie with that exact title, but I don’t remember whether IA was good or bad in it.

I do remember a story arc in “NYPD Blue” where an IA cop was given the stinkeye by all the regulars, but it turned out that they were wrong and he was right.

I think you make a good point — you would think that it would be easy for an author of police novels to make an IA guy the hero, but I don’t recall any that do. Especially odd since “whistle-blower” type books are common.

Real world, though, is much easier to understand — the good cops want to bust bad guys, and they can’t understand someone who forgoes that to bust fellow cops. They see the necessity, but they don’t have to like it.

There’s a US film where IA is good, and a Hong Kong film which was remade as the Departed.

In Dexter, IA is considered bad by the police rank and file. One IA officer is portrayed as a little cold and pushy, but the person she is investigating might deserve it somewhat.

Ellen Barkin’s character in The Big Easy, while not in Internal Affairs, is definitely a “good guy” investigating dirty cops. As is Guy Pearce’s character in L.A. Confidential. Interestingly, both team up with dirty cops to catch much worse ones.

I have no idea how it works in real life (though I have seen cops get very angry when anyone calls the action of any cop into question), but the point of drama is to provide conflict. Internal Affairs has the power to give a cop a very hard time, and that makes for good drama. And, in general, people don’t like others second-guessing their decisions, even if the end result is that they’re cleared of any wrongdoing.

It’s a stressful situation; I went through it once when the SEC started investigating me about some potential insider trading. It was a bogus claim, and I knew I was in the clear, but the SEC had to investigate the claim (one more reason I don’t like Marvel Comics, BTW).

In popular culture, both dirty cops and internal affairs investigators are seen as people who broke the code.

It’s supposed to be cops on one side and criminals on the other. A dirty cop is somebody who crossed over to the other side and became a criminal. An internal affairs officer is somebody who works against what is supposed to be his own side.

My experience is that cops really hate dirty cops but will grudgingly acknowledge that the existence of dirty cops makes IA a necessary evil.

There’s a new series on Lifetime called Against the Wall. It’s actually pretty good, surprisingly. The protagonist is a recently promoted, woman detective to IA. She’s from a family of cops, so there is a lot of showing how hard it can be, but you also regard her as a hero when she takes down the bad ones.

That was how I remember L.A. Confidential, although I haven’t seen it in a long time. There are some episodes of Law & Order where internal affairs are on the right side (depending on who they’re investigating, of course). I’m trying to remember what role internal affairs played in The Wire. But The Wire is sort of different, partly because one of the “heroes” used to be a crooked cop.

I’ve seen it fairly recently, and Exley starts out squeaky clean and gets a bit dirty (or at least willing to use dirty tactics for good) and White starts out dirty, but with a fierce need to do the right thing. I’ve seen it several times, but only this last time did I get the whole plot, every aspect. It is such an intricately constructed story, with all these threads and characters, good, bad and every shade of gray in between.

Why hasn’t Curtis Hanson done anything this good since? I’ve seen Wonder Boys, 8 Mile, In Her Shoes and Lucky You and wondered when is he going to get another project that matches his talent?

Dirty cops are popular in dramas because they have good dramatic possibilities. If the authorities are dirty, who can you go to for help? Similarily, if your a good cop stuck with dirty cops, you have to choose between being part of “the team” or ratting out your fellows. And if you do rat them out, how do you know the IA isn’t dirty as well, and going to turn on you? All promising dilemmas for a protagonist.

But (good) IA characters don’t really have the same tension. Presumably if your in IA you don’t have conflicting emotions about going after dirty cops. And similarily, if you find a dirty cop, presumably you already know what to do and who to go to, since dealing with them is basically your job description.

They were the good guys.

Andy Garcia played a good IA in Internal Affairs, tracking Richard Gere as a dirty cop. The plot was kind of similar to Othello.

Anthony Anderson played an IA in Law & Order right before he took over Jesse L. Martin’s slot as Jeremy Sisto’s partner. This would have been around Season 18 (2008). Also, Bobby Goren on L&O: Criminal Intent did a brief stint with Internal Affairs, to get back in Major Cases after his meltdown. Someone (my money is on Eames) stuck a dead rat in his desk drawer to make a point about how uncool that was of him.

Aha. I remember it now.

And that reminds me that Forest Whittaker played an IA cop going after Vic for a whole season of “The Shield.” He started out good, but got carried away.

Well, to also refer to your thread title, there is in fact something worse than a dirty cop, and that’s a rat.

Call it whatever you like, don’t go against your kin, bro’s before ho’s, thou shalt not fink, honor amongst thieves, its simply the idea that within any group of related or teamed individuals, turning on each other is the worst act imaginable. Even if the member of your clan has murdered, robbed, raped, stolen etc. it doesn’t matter, ratting him out is still a much worse act.

It is however, IMO, often complete and total bullshit. If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas. In other words there is no honor nor respectability in protecting dishonorable and disrespectful individuals.

And wasn’t Tim Hutton’s character in Q&A IA? He was pretty much the hero.

On the TV show The Closer, Mary McDonnell plays an Internal Affairs character responsible for the group that investigates officer involved violence and other complaints against police officers.

While a pain the ass she is often shown cooperating towards the larger goal of catching bad guys while still doing her job.

I kind of conflated that movie with Internal Affairs in my creaky memory and thought he played the Andy Garcia role; according to IMDB, he’s actually a District Attorney (albeit kind of a badass).

He also plays “the Turlingtons” in American Dad!. He is a reoccurring character who may be identical twins, may be the same guy with different jobs. They are: an “IA” officer for meter maids, a overly suspicious spa detective, and a city/county border guard (also suspicious).

Mentioned upthread, NYPD Blue’s portrayal of “the rat squad” was typically sympathetic even though the main character (Det. Sipowicz) despised them. The recurring Sgt. Martens was almost always portrayed as both morally correct and understanding as well as usually able to keep his cool no matter how much Sipowicz “squeezed his shoes.”

At least as portrayed on that show, one of the issues with IA was that there were all sorts of well-meaning regulations which hampered a cop’s ability to do [what he sees as] his job and which the brass typically looked the other way over because they knew efficacy would suffer otherwise. But therefore there was always the possibility that you’d get punished or even arrested for doing what everyone did, what all the bosses encouraged you to do even, if for any reason someone in IA – or someone they had to kow tow to – got a burr in his saddle about you.

That’s the way they wrote out Darvid Caruso in S2, for instance – there was a captain who’d appeared in a handful of episodes who was shown in the most venal, egotistical and possibly crooked way. Caruso’s character, Det. Kelley, stood up to him about something or other and so he tried to get him kicked off the job. His plan didn’t succeed, but the captain then sent IA to go over all of Kelley’s files with a fine toothed comb. Kelley knew they’d eventually find some technical error they could gin up into a big scandal, so he quit before they could ruin his reputation (and cost him his partial pension in the process).


I think it’s partly because an IA investigation, if it’s in the hands of an officer who values politics over ideals, can become a simple means to an end. The rank and file police officers are vulnerable to being fired, losing their pensions, even doing jail time, while the higher ups - who may be the source and cause of the corruption - are protected.