Police work carries a lot of responsibility, and law enforcement officers are held to high standards both by their agencies and the public they serve. Because of this, incidents of police misconduct tend to be highly publicized. In 2010, Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project recorded 4,861 unique reports of police misconduct involving 6,613 officers.

Law enforcement agencies can’t control every officer’s behavior, but departments can establish comprehensive policies and values to encourage transparency and officer accountability. Here are a few places to start:

Policies rooted in clear values and goals

Most law enforcement command structures are built top down. But while commanders should hold officers responsible for their actions, the most effective police accountability starts at the officer level.

Things like body-worn cameras can help with accountability, but even the best technology won’t be effective long term without clear policies and values in place. Officers need to be reminded that department policies and procedures are not just arbitrary rules. Rather, effective policies are rooted in a department’s values and goals. Departments should create a statement of values, and regularly communicate those values to every staff member. Department policy cannot give step-by-step instructions for every possible scenario an officer may face, but knowing the agency’s deeper values can help officers make the right decision and quickly recognize when a fellow officer is not adhering to the standards.

Rather than urging officers to “stay out of trouble” or “do whatever is necessary,” command staff should remind officers to keep in mind their ultimate mission: to serve and protect.

Auditing and discipline structures

Law enforcement agencies should have structures in place for auditing, reviews, and discipline long before an accusation of misconduct arises. When possible, an agency should have an Internal Affairs Office and Professional Standards Bureau, which can conduct regular audits to ensure the department is functioning as effectively and transparently as possible.

If an incident of misconduct emerges, there should be procedures in place for discipline, punishment and appeal processes. Having these established beforehand will make sure the discipline process is fair and doesn’t get dragged out.

Involve citizens in policy making and review processes

Along with practicing good internal accountability, law enforcement agencies should also listen to complaints and concerns from the community. This feedback can help departments update policies to make sure they are serving their communities well.

Much of police activity is public record, and departments should seek to be as transparent as possible, making their policies available to the public, updating the community about arrests and crime statistics and establishing citizen oversight committees to ensure that disciplinary reviews are fair. When a community feels heard, they will trust the police more.

Clear values, effective policies and internal and external accountability can help police departments cut down misconduct and make sure they are prepared if the headlines do turn negative.

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