The concept of accountability is increasingly transforming the law enforcement landscape. Defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) as “internal and external checks and balances” that ensure and enforce “proper behavior” from officers, accountability has seen a substantial spike in public interest in recent years. Citizens clamor for law enforcement accountability any time perceived misbehavior draws the media spotlight. In turn, this has led several well-known politicians to make the idea part of their respective platforms or public-facing practices, including Portland Mayor Tom Wheeler, former U.S. President Barack Obama, and late Senator John McCain.

Public outrage and political pressure are only two factors that may behoove—or, in some cases, force—a law enforcement agency to consider, implement, or comply with accountability-boosting measures. In other situations, a department may make changes as a proactive gesture of public goodwill or a means to acquire added funding via grants or other sources. In all these cases, the transformative aspect of accountability comes not from the desire, but rather the tools and techniques a department employs to satisfy it. At a high level, many agencies looking to improve accountability will respond with one of the following three approaches:

  • A technological approach, by which departments utilize tools such as data analysis or body cameras to capture, store, or publish information, with the ultimate goal of attaining accountability via the added scrutiny it enables.
  • A human-driven or bureaucratic approach, whereby officials grant power to new or expanded agencies—most popularly citizen review boards—to oversee and investigate law enforcement behavior, and mete out discipline, where appropriate.
  • A training-driven approach, in which public service agencies, wishing to reduce questions of accountability and reduce resultant liability, implement educational programs designed to increase performance and curb instances of misbehavior.

For the individual department or oversight agency, deciding between these options—and choosing between the specific solutions contained in each—will require a healthy dose of context. Cost, source of so-called “accountability pressure,” desired outcome, and current reputation within the community will all influence the overall decision. So, too, will the strengths and relative weaknesses that each approach brings. By understanding which problems the tool in question aims to solve, departments will be better equipped to find a mix that works best for their individual needs. The demand for accountability at any moment is increasingly transforming the law enforcement landscape. Click To Tweet

The technological approach: Data-driven tools bring increasing popularity, lingering questions

In 2015, a program advanced by President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice put uniform-worn cameras on thousands of law enforcement lapels. Support for the measures was vigorous from all sides of the political spectrum. Some proponents claimed the devices would keep officers honest, while others said they would reduce the incidence of acceptable force, costing officers their jobs and even their freedom. Both viewpoints came backed by the now-famous Rialto study, a paper outlining one California department’s dramatic drop in use-of-force and citizen complaints after installing cameras on on-duty officers.

Body cameras are not the only technological tool to push accountability via transparency. Increasingly popular open data programs take the same idea in a different direction, encouraging departments to expand access to records that might otherwise be sealed or presented at a much shallower level—the difference between stating the number of use-of-force cases in a given year and releasing detailed notes on each incident once investigations are complete. Such measures have seen notable success in cities like Dallas, which partially credits open data initiatives with reducing crime rates, deadly force usage, and excessive force complaints. Even without such dramatic results, supporters say giving the public a greater degree of insight into law enforcement data builds trust by showing departments have nothing to hide.

Taken in total, news surrounding these innovations has been mixed in the years since reaching mainstream attention. Although the presence of an unblinking eye may keep misbehavior-prone officers and suspects honest, and while more insight into the agencies serving us is inherently healthy for our democracy, more research is necessary before making specific claims about their accountability benefits. Larger studies than Rialto indicate that complaints and use-of-force incidents come at an equal rate whether a bodycam is present or not, aside from considering the significant costs and lingering privacy and security issues posed by such devices. On the other side, open data initiatives are good for building trust, but may do little to curb individual breaches of accountability. Larger studies than Rialto indicate that complaints and use-of-force incidents come at an equal rate whether a bodycam is present or not. Click To Tweet

More to the point, body cameras may not be the cure-all that many proponents have claimed they are. Data, be it a video on a computer monitor or numbers in a publicly available spreadsheet, is a valuable tool to bolster human understanding of a situation.  However, it is also frequently incomplete, sometimes to the point it objectively gets things wrong. It is also prone to human flaws like bias and misinterpretation.

Taken in total, it appears data-backed initiatives are better used as solutions to specific problems than end-all-be-all accountability measures. A department sharing data on all misbehavior leading to substantial adverse actions may fare better than one that shames all officers by sharing every minor discussion. Agencies that utilize body cams to verify officer and witness accounts may find better results than one that trusts recording data above all else.

The human-driven approach: Civilian review presents a sea of options, not a one-size-fits-all fix

Like technological accountability tools, bureaucratic remedies such as civilian review boards (CRBs) provide a number of options with a shared goal, namely enhancing accountability by increasing the number of people to whom agencies and individual officers report. The lingering threat of a civilian review investigation—or, in areas where other government bodies are responsible, external investigation from a city council or similar entity—could keep personnel from misbehaving. Proponents say putting some power back in the hands of citizens should result in a greater degree of respect between police and the public.

This basic idea has taken hold across the country, with enough success stories to suggest further implementation may have merit. In 2017, Seattle’s civilian oversight entity enjoyed changes that gave it more power to investigate misbehavior. This was a far cry from its previous reputation as a rubber stamp for law enforcement. Oakland’s Community Police Review Agency, hailed as a model after revamps similarly gave it new powers and investigatory focus, recently launched a tool to make civilian reporting easier and more accessible than ever. The tool, which uses trackable ticket-style recording, makes it easier for citizens to lodge and watch the progress of their complaints. This comes paired with thorough information, prepared in a number of languages, on the procedure complaints follow and policy guiding them. The combined effect is a competent web-based service that demystifies the process, and makes users more comfortable.A city must know what the civilian review board’s (CRB’s) mission is and what tools it can use to achieve law enforcement accountability. Click To Tweet

While the Oakland example, in particular, exemplifies a board working to accomplish its stated mission, no single victory is dramatic enough to imply CRBs are a magic bullet or universal fix. In general, the potential downsides of a bureaucratic approach come in two flavors: implementation and effectiveness. Subpoena power is one major concern here, and one that can dictate the board’s function and power to extreme degree. Function is another, since an investigatory board (which usually investigates individual complaints based on severity and community outcry) will necessarily differ from an auditing one (which may look at a set number of complaints on particular dates each year). Funding, volunteer-vs.-professional hiring status, and professional distance from the law enforcement agency may also play into a board’s overall effectiveness.

Because of this, the need to think through the context becomes more important when an agency considers bureaucratic accountability measures. A city must know precisely what it wants its board to do, precisely how it wishes for the entity to accomplish that goal, and which tools it will have to accomplish them. Anything less and the board may come across as toothless or too “soft” on accusations they investigate, a view that can ultimately harm the perception of accountability instead of helping.

The training-driven approach: Education, policy, can prevent looming accountability problems

The Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) 2017 decision to mandate de-escalation training made national headlines for several reasons, not all of them good. The city’s soaring crime rate and the perception of inappropriately aggressive officers, for instance, created an air of unaccountability that all but mandated the embattled department and its city to try something new.The third tool - training - is a pro-active approach to aid the officer during the situation, rather than an investigative tool after the incident. Click To Tweet

However, there is a larger story behind the CPD’s change, namely the idea that preventative measures are an important part of any accountability-building program. Though body cameras and open data are good for addressing issues after the fact, moves that implant the idea of accountability from the first days of academy are just as critical, as are initiatives that spare the organization and its government from liability in the event of legal trouble.

Considering this, training presents a natural segue to the preventative side of accountability. Take the CPD’s de-escalation training: Long hailed as a smart alternative to current training procedures, the model emphasizes communication, strategic thinking, and mutual respect, three factors that can drastically reduce civilian complaints and use-of-force. While some elements within a given department may bristle at emotionally-sensitive conversations over compliance and force, and while there is something to the argument that the model may direct officers to continue talking when physical action is necessary, the model is an extra tool, not the only one. De-escalation may not be helpful in an active shooting event, but the ability to “talk a suspect down” in certain situations might be preferable.

The value of training extends far beyond de-escalation courses. Many liability issues stem from the question of personal vs. organizational accountability. Numerous court cases illustrate effective training and thorough policy as an effective shield against lawsuits and payouts. A department or city defending itself following the indiscretions of an employee is much more likely to be successful when they can show they trained the officer against the behavior and have policies that forbid it. Thus, the agency and city protect themselves by teaching the majority of good-intentioned officers that a given behavior is bad, and then shield themselves again from the rare bad actor. A department or city defending itself following the indiscretions of an employee is much more likely to be successful when they can show they trained the officer against the behavior and have policies that forbid it. Click To Tweet

To reiterate, an effective accountability overhaul requires the ability to catch problems after the fact. In these situations, data-backed tools and bureaucratic remedies can be useful, but it is hard to quantify their preventative power beyond conjecture. An effective training component blending coursework, on-demand modules, simulations, and other learning environments can bridge that gap—giving law enforcement agencies and their overseeing entities better ability to breathe easy, before accountability-impacting problems have the chance to materialize.


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