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Accountability is the real reform, not defunding

Here we go again. Having only just begun the reckoning of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, police in Atlanta punctuate the issues by killing Rayshard Brooks, a black man whose primary offense was attempting to flee from police apparently trying to arrest him for DWI. Since Brooks was in possession of a Taser he had taken from police during their scuffle, we are cautioned by authorities that we shouldn’t rush to judgement while the investigation into the shooting plays out. 

The calls for patience, however, belied what followed. Almost immediately the police chief resigned and the officer who fired the fatal shot was dismissed and charged with felony murder. Still, in many communities the police have little credibility left as calls for defunding police have become increasingly mainstream. While no one can predict how the demands for reform will evolve, few appear to believe that policing will cease to exist and, even if greatly restricted, many of the services now provided by police will continue, perhaps absorbed by someone else. As such, accountability for public safety lies at the core of reform. But what should it mean to be accountable?

Accountability for public safety should be viewed from multiple levels. When we talk about the police, the most obvious is individual accountability; not to be confused with its close cousin, responsibility. When they put on the badge, individual police are accepting the responsibility to perform a set of tasks or activities and to do so within the parameters set by law and the values agreed upon both societally and organizationally. Accountability, then, is the obligation to answer for those responsibilities. 

Internally, police accountability is usually achieved through activity reports and supervisory review. Unfortunately, these methods generally focus on the easily measured processes of policing (activities) while paying little real attention to whether community goals (outcomes) are achieved. 

Police understand that their responsibility is to catch lawbreakers, but since we don’t measure outcomes, we seldom bother to even ask what the outcomes should be. This means that while we give much lip service to the need to protect citizens’ rights, solve a community’s problems, or establish and clearly communicate the values that guide officers’ actions, our systems of accountability downplay those responsibilities. After all, as the saying goes, people do what gets measured.

Which is why public accountability is so important.

The processes of accounting to the public require transparency. Much more than just a summary of police activities, the first goal of public accountability should be to inform citizens which of their needs and wants are to be honored. Further, an explanation of why those needs are chosen and their priority. The real value of being publicly accountable can be seen when the services the agency provides — or the manner in which it provides them — are inconsistent with what the citizens believe they need. Public accountability allows those discrepancies to be addressed; as we are seeing done now. 

While internal processes are usually poorly done in most police agencies, the conflicts we are witnessing today come from breakdowns in public accountability driven largely by two distinct factors. First, our allergy to transparency. Whether driven by legislated bills of rights for police or broadly constructed labor agreements at the agency level, all-too-often protections to prevent abuses of police are stretched to protect abuses by them. Limitations on how investigators can investigate complaints against police, as well as what discipline can be administered, have the effect of poisoning the police culture, undermining what value systems are in effect and destroying public confidence. 

The public might ask, “Why should internal affairs investigators have different rules than burglary detectives?” Often, the rules protecting police even limit or prevent disclosure of the allegation itself ensuring that a public accounting remains out of reach. When coupled with qualified immunity, the legal principle that police can only be held liable for violations of rights specified by “clearly established” law, it is no wonder that accountability is so difficult to achieve. While we certainly don’t want to return to the bad-old days when the police served at the whim of the local ward boss, these mechanisms that now serve to prevent accountability must be modified.

Second, the citizens’ role in the attainment of accountability. Many departments are proud of their outreach to citizens and often point to citizens’ police academies and neighborhood coordinators as proof of their commitment. Unfortunately, for accountability purposes they have it backwards — these programs are intended to inform the community of the problems of policing; they do little to inform the police of the demands of the community. Public safety is too important to leave to the police. If we are to have a meaningful system of public accountability for our safety, then we must first collectively determine what the intended objectives of policing, whoever is doing it, are to be. 

The “defund police” movement notes that armed police are not well-suited to assist the mentally ill and homeless. Most police would likely agree and would include domestic conflicts and substance abuse issues, among others, on the list of needs better suited to be addressed by other service providers. As a society, however, we have withdrawn from the provision of appropriate services. Instead, we call the police for these issues because they’ll come and they’ll do something. If we can delegate these problems to police, we can avoid acknowledging them, much less the expenses of addressing them properly. 

So, if accountability is what we desire, let’s have it. But first, let’s agree on what we expect from our police and what constitutes success. What are the proper means of succeeding? Who will be responsible and accountable for those needs that we demand but that are not suitable for the police?  Once we have answered those questions true accountability can begin.

Dennis Jay Kenney, a former Florida police officer, is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. In addition, he has served as director of research and planning in Savannah, Georgia; a project director for the Police Founda­tion; and was Associate Director and Director of Research for the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). He is the author or co-author of numerous articles and books, and has also served as past editor of both the American Journal of Police and Police Quarterly.

Timothy N. Oettmeier spent 42 years in the Houston Police Department, working his way up the ranks to Executive Assistant Chief until his retirement in 2016. During the course of his career, he was extensively involved in the development, implementation and refinement of the “community policing” concept in Texas and across America.  He has taught at the university level and been involved in developing law enforcement personnel training and performance assessment materials for more than 25 years. 

Tags anti-police protests BLM Community outreach Defunding police Police police accountability police brutality police departments police reform

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