The 3 levels of police accountability

Police officers are held to higher standards by their community, but it's the top brass who should model following those policies and standards for their lower-level officers.

December 22, 2020

Article highlights

Some days it seems like police officers carry the weight of the world – or at least their own community – on their shoulders.

They're held to high standards both by their agencies and the public they serve. Sometimes those two standards don't quite match, and sometimes they conflict outright. Because these standards are so high, incidents of police misconduct frequently make headlines.

In 2020, USA Today found that over the past decade, 85,000 officers had been investigated or disciplined for misconduct.

To continue to serve their communities and preserve their reputations, it's important that law enforcement agencies take steps to establish accountability in their own agency.

While additional levels of law enforcement accountability may prevent negative media attention and outcry from public officials, there is a more valuable motivation for compliance: Enforcing your policies and procedures through accountability not only protects your community, it protects your fellow officers and the police department as a whole.

You've heard the phrase that you "can't legislate morality." In that same way, top leadership can't control every officer’s behavior. However, you can establish policies and values that encourage transparency and demand officer accountability. You can create policies that set performance standards and set clear expectations on what is allowed and not allowed, including a citizen's individual and constitutional rights.

These policies and values can encourage transparency and officer accountability.

In this article, we'll discuss how law enforcement agencies can establish police accountability by adopting a new mindset about the framework of their organization, building their policies upon clear values and goals, and involving citizens in policy making and review processes.

Adopt a new mindset about your organization's framework

A new mindset about the framework of your organization is a great place to start when creating an accountable and compliant culture.

Think of your agency as a living, moving organism. As a leader, you are the head, and your employees are the various organs, parts, and systems within the body.

When even a minor body part – say, the pinky finger – is not functioning, the entire body suffers from inefficiency or unsafety. Think of professional quarterbacks or receivers who are sidelined just because of a pinky injury. Something so small can put an elite athlete out of commission for a couple weeks, unable to throw or catch.

In that same way, one small area that is not functioning puts the entire agency in jeopardy, police trainer Randy Sutton wrote in PoliceOne back in 2009.

“Every little thing in an organism is important; every member of an organization is important and a factor in healthy functionality. Thus when even one officer or agent within an agency commits a breach of trust, the whole organization suffers."

Lead by example

When creating an accountable, ethical culture, make sure you practice what you preach. As a leader within the department, you are an actual role model for ethical, exemplary behavior. But you can't credibly pursue police accountability for compliance if you don’t engage in ethical and righteous behavior yourself.

How can your team respect your policies and discipline if you don’t abide by them yourself? That's where real leaders lead by example.

If you've ever heard the phrase, "the fish stinks from the head down," you understand the concept: The morals and ethics an organization reflects are created by the head of that organization. And it starts with the people they surround themselves with.

So choose leaders who share your organization’s values and ethics because they are people law enforcement officers will take their cues from.

It's essential that your agency's leadership truly behave ethically.

If they don’t, when lower-ranking personnel face discipline for their violations, they'll view any punishment as hypocritical and arbitrary. The lesson of the discipline will be lost and it will only frustrate the person involved.

Create a culture of pride

If you want your officers to respond positively to your law enforcement accountability efforts, create a place where they are proud to work, an atmosphere they're proud to be a part of. Your ultimate goal is for your individual officers to respect themselves.

If they have a sense of pride, they're more likely to respect you, their fellow law enforcement officers, and their community. Pride in the workplace starts with understanding the importance of one’s profession.

If someone is proud of where they work and proud of their profession, they're less likely to dishonor themselves through misconduct or policy violations.

Most law enforcement command structures are built from the top down. And while commanders should hold individual officers responsible for their actions, effective police accountability starts at the upper levels.

Things like body cameras can help with law enforcement accountability. But even the best technology won’t be effective long term without clear policies and values in place. It’s important to remind officers that department policies and procedures are not just arbitrary rules. Rather, effective policies reflect a department’s values and goals.

Make sure your team knows why you established these goals in the first place – to ensure professionalism, success, and safety for your officers and those they serve.

What’s the first step to creating and conveying your department’s vision? Start by creating a statement of values, and regularly communicate those values to every staff member. 

Build your policies upon clear values and goals

Department policy cannot give step-by-step instructions for every possible scenario an officer may face. But knowing the agency's deeper values can guide officers into making the right decisions. It gives them a sort of decision tree – "Is this the right thing to do? Am I allowed to do that?" – when facing new situations.

It can also help them quickly recognize when a fellow officer is not meeting those standards, and help them hold each other accountable.

Encourage a guardian mindset

A guardian mindset reminds officers and commanders that their ultimate mission is to serve and protect their community. To do that effectively, they need to switch from a "warrior" mindset to that of "guardian."

While older methods of policing characterized officers as warriors, soldiers or fighters, the guardian mindset promotes defending and protecting the people they serve. This means that more than any other role, police officers are advocates for their communities. Their ultimate goal becomes crime prevention and reduction, not arrests and citations.

Use structure in auditing and discipline

Law enforcement agencies need structures in place for auditing, reviews, and discipline before an accusation of misconduct ever arises.

In addition to the policies and procedures manual, an agency needs a method of internal investigations through an Internal Affairs Office and Professional Standards Bureau. Those people may eat alone and have a bad reputation within the agency, but they're there to keep officers from misconduct and crimes. They're the second line of defense against misconduct, behind the officers themselves.

Internal Affairs can conduct regular audits to ensure the department is functioning as effectively and transparently as possible.

If misconduct or a violation arises, there needs to be procedures in place for discipline, punishment, and appeal processes. Creating these beforehand will ensure the discipline process is fair and doesn’t get dragged out or abused.

Keep in mind that even if you have an Internal Affairs Office, no individual can force another person to act justly and ethically at all times. It's your job to encourage and lead, but you cannot control your officers. Ultimately, that's up to them and their personal values whether they take responsibility for their own actions.

Involve citizens in policy making and review processes

Along with practicing good internal accountability, law enforcement agencies should listen to complaints and concerns from their community. It's going to be hard, it's going to be uncomfortable, and it may even be loud at times.

But it's the only way you can make sure you're serving your communities well.

Most police activity is public record already. So departments should try to be as transparent as possible, going so far as making their policies available to the public.

You can even involve them in the review process: Make your policy manual available to the public and ask them for feedback. Ask them for things they would like to see in the future. Take that feedback into account when reviewing and updating your policies.

Being transparent may also mean updating your community about arrests, 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. It may take a while to undo a lot of the damage that has been done nationally, but you can show that your local law enforcement agency is doing everything it can to serve its public.

Final thoughts

Accountability for law enforcement is not always simple. Like any other pursuit with the goal of compliance, it takes time, effort, and consistency. But if you want a more compliant – and ultimately, safer – agency, accountability is the place to start.

By adopting a new mindset about your organizational framework, building policies on clear values and goals, and involving citizens in public policy making and review, you can begin cutting down misconduct and building stronger relationships with your local community.

If you would like to learn more about the importance of accountability in the workplace, visit this article.

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