What Can Case Disposition Ratios Teach Us About Our Investigative Team?

If you manage an investigative team, one helpful metric to measure is the ratios of your case dispositions for a given period.

Every agency or company uses different names for their case dispositions. Still, no matter what we call them, they can serve the same primary purpose of defining the result of an investigation. My agency uses a few irregular dispositions, such as a Law Enforcement Assist. We use this for situations where we liaison between our state agency and local, state, or federal law enforcement. Your unit may also use irregular case dispositions, but we all use three main types of dispositions.

These include a disposition for finding a violation occurred, did not occur, or that the investigation was unable to determine whether a violation occurred or not. Specifically, my agency uses a Sustained finding for cases that meet the appropriate level of proof; that is, the case meets the probable cause standard for criminal cases and the preponderance of evidence standard for administrative issues.

An Unfounded or Exonerated finding means the investigation either established the violation did not occur or that the act occurred but was not a violation of policy or law. Either way, the accused is shown to be innocent. With these dispositions, the investigation clears the person from the alleged wrongdoing.

The third disposition, Not Sustained, happens when the investigation can neither prove nor disprove a violation. In this case finding, the investigator can neither confirm the subject of an investigation is guilty of an offense nor clear their name from the alleged wrongdoing. Therefore, this disposition becomes a middle ground that serves as a catch-all for when an investigation produces inconclusive results.

With these three categories, we see that our investigators are either proving allegations, disproving them, or unable to do either. What is interesting for the investigations manager is to understand what the ratio of these three dispositions can tell us about our investigative unit. Some examples of different ratios might include consistently higher or lower percentages of certain dispositions. Maybe your unit closes, on average, about 50 cases each month, with an average of 20 Sustained cases, 20 Not Sustained cases, and an average of 10 Unfounded or Exonerated cases. Or, maybe your unit closes an average of 50 cases per month, averaging only ten Sustained cases, ten  Not Sustained cases, and an average of 30 cases per month that are Unfounded or Exonerated. Many managers do not pay much attention to these ratios and assume the variance from month to month is an unpredictable metric based on chance.

Investigative units cannot control what types of complaints or allegations they receive, and whether someone will be found innocent or guilty is also unpredictable. But, I have found these ratios provide the investigations manager with valuable information about the unit's capabilities and performance. While the incoming case types and culpability of the accused are based mainly on chance, finding enough evidence to either charge or clear someone is not a random act. It tells us a lot about our unit's experience, skills, and use of resources to either prove or disprove the allegations. So while incoming cases and referrals that correctly implicate the accused is a foggy metric, the unit's ability to establish what happened is more a matter of investigative prowess.

Let's take a look at some of the information we can glean when studying the disposition ratios of our investigative team.

Sustained Cases - when the investigation discloses sufficient evidence to establish the alleged act(s) occurred, based upon the preponderance of evidence standard, and it constituted an administrative policy violation. Or when the investigation discloses sufficient evidence to establish that the alleged act(s) occurred, based upon a probable cause standard, and it constituted a violation of criminal law.

While Sustained cases are a sign of successful investigations and a robust investigative process, having a high ratio of Sustained cases can point to other contributing factors. An abnormally high percentage of Sustained cases can mean overly-aggressive investigations, for example, cases that stray away from the original allegation and become a fishing expedition. It can also mean that laws and policies are being interpreted too tightly, which will likely produce cases that are not accepted for civil hearings or criminal prosecutions because they lie outside the current prosecutorial norms. It can also point to a lack of training within a company or community. Whenever there are many people committing violations, then we can be sure that the culprit is most likely a systemic issue.

Most successful investigative units have about 10 to 15 percent of their cases result in a Sustained finding. An investigative team will produce a low ratio of sustained cases with proper management and training. Still, these cases will have a high success rate in civil hearings or criminal prosecutions. On the other hand, if your investigative unit produces little to no Sustained cases, this can point to a lack of investigative skills, poor investigative processes, or a lack of investigative resources.

Unfounded or Exonerated Cases - An Unfounded disposition is defined as when the investigation discloses the alleged act(s) did not occur, and Exonerated cases are when the investigation discloses the alleged act(s) occurred, but that the act(s) were justified, lawful, and/or proper.

My investigative team is an internal affairs unit that investigates alleged violations committed by other investigators. Because many people are unhappy with their dealings with these investigators, it is not uncommon to receive a high number of false allegations against these agency employees. Of course, sometimes, the employee in question committed violations that must be dealt with appropriately. Your agency might not align with this exact situation, but a high ratio of Unfounded or Exonerated cases is generally the mark of a successful investigative unit, since violations are rare, relative to the behavior of a group as a whole.

A high ratio of Unfounded or Exonerated cases can build confidence in the workplace or community, presenting an investigative unit in a more positive light. Investigators are not just here to catch bad people; we are also here to protect the innocent and ensure they are not being held liable for something they did not do. A high ratio of these dispositions can indicate a unit with skilled investigators, sound investigative processes, and an adequate supply of investigative resources.

A low ratio of these dispositions can indicate a lack of investigative skills and poor investigative processes. A low ratio can also mean that the employees' agency policies are too vague or unknown. A solid investigative unit will have a high percentage of Unfounded and Exonerated cases, but fewer cases with Sustained findings  that will consistently be effective in court.

Not Sustained - When the investigation discloses insufficient evidence to sustain the allegation or fully exonerate the accused.

A high ratio of cases that are Not Sustained can indicate a lack of investigator skills and training. This assessment is accurate because good investigators can usually get to the bottom of a case and prove whether the person being investigated is more likely to be innocent or guilty.

It is more desirable to have a low ratio of Not Sustained cases. This lower percentage indicates that the team's skills, processes, and resources adequately support the investigative unit. Of course, there will always be a few cases where the subject of the investigation cannot be proven guilty or innocent, and that is why we have a Not Sustained case disposition. It is better to have a lower ratio of Not Sustained cases because a lower number demonstrates your investigators are skilled enough to come to more definitive answers on a regular basis.

In my unit, I like to see a ratio of 2:1:7; that is, for every ten cases, a healthy team would have about two solid, Sustained cases, one case that was Not Sustained, and about 7 cases that were Unfounded, Exonerated, or closed with some other disposition.

If you manage an investigative unit, you should request a monthly report of cases closed by disposition type. As a general rule of thumb, remember that most of your investigations should end with an Unfounded or Exonerated disposition. At the same time, fewer cases should be Sustained, and even fewer should end up as Not Sustained. Proper equipment, training, and investigative processes will be vital to helping you attain this goal. Keep a close eye on monthly reports that indicate your Sustained cases are rising or falling, your Unfounded or Exonerated cases are plummeting, and Not Sustained cases are on the rise.

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