Levels of Accountability in Policing

In law enforcement, when headlines turn negative, it's critical to have policies in place that ensure officer accountability.

December 22, 2020

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More than many other jobs, police work carries a lot of responsibility.

This means law enforcement officers are held to high standards both by their agencies and the public they serve. Because of this, incidents of police misconduct frequently make headlines.

In 2010, Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project recorded 4,861 unique reports of police misconduct involving 6,613 officers.

For this reason, it is important to establish accountability in your agency.

While additional levels of accountability may prevent negative press attention, there is a more valuable motivation for compliance. Enforcing your policies and procedures through police officer accountability casts a wide safety net in your agency and community.

When your officers know how to conduct themselves with honor and professionalism, everyone is better for it.

Remember, law enforcement agencies can’t control every officer’s behavior.

Departments can, however, establish comprehensive policies and values to encourage transparency and officer accountability. Here are a few places to begin.

Start With How You Think About Your Organization

A new mindset about the framework of your organization is a helpful foundation for creating an accountable and compliant culture.

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

When even a minor part – say, the pinky – is not functioning, the entire body suffers from inefficiency or unsafety. This puts the entire agency in jeopardy, police trainer Randy Sutton writes in PoliceOne.

“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 it comes to creating an accountable, ethical culture, make sure you practice what you preach. What good is your pursuit of accountability for compliance if you don’t “walk the walk” yourself?

Along the same lines, how will your team respect your policies and discipline if you don’t abide by them yourself? Sutton says it’s highly important to lead by example. “There is no doubt that the entire ‘ethical personality; of an agency is determined by the head of that organization and, accordingly, by those who the leader has chosen to surround himself or herself with.”


Sutton also recommends choosing leaders who share your organization’s values – ultimately, people your officers will respect.

“If, upon appointment or election, the chief or sheriff selects men or women who are perceived as competent, fair and ethical, the entire organization, as a body, will respect the decisions made on their behalf and will be optimistic as to how these decisions will affect their professional, even personal, lives.”

It is essential that administrative staff truly and decisively “walk the walk” ethically, if not morally.

If they don’t, lower ranking personnel, when facing discipline for their transgressions, will view any punishment as hypocritical and as having no value.

Create a culture of pride

If you want your officers respond positively to your accountability efforts, create a place where they are proud to work. Ultimately, you want your officers to respect themselves.

With this sense of pride, they will be more likely to respect you, one another, and those whom they serve. Sutton says pride in the workplace starts with understanding the importance of one’s profession.

“It begins with each one of us realizing that we are important not only as individuals and as members of a noble profession but also in how we play a vital role in the lives of others. Once we accept that fundamental truth about ourselves, we need to look at our colleagues and coworkers and regard them with the same respect.

“Ultimately, it’s a belief in what one stands for and pride, of the healthy, expansive sort, that keeps a person from dishonoring themselves and their profession.”


Most law enforcement command structures are built from the top down. But while commanders should hold officers responsible for their actions, 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.

It’s important to remind officers that department policies and procedures are not just arbitrary rules. Rather, effective policies coincide with 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

Bear in mind that department policy cannot give step-by-step instructions for every possible scenario an officer may face. However, knowing the agency’s deeper values can help officers make the right decision. It can also help them quickly recognize when a fellow officer is not adhering to the standards.

Encourage a guardian mindset

Sutton believes adopting a guardian mindset in your agency is a key method for keeping your officers accountable.

He says, “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.”

In order to serve and protect effectively, officers must know how to distinguish a “warrior” from a “guardian.”

While older methods of policing characterized officers as warriors, soldiers or fighters, the guardian mindset promotes defending and protecting. This means that more than any other role, police officers are advocates for their communities.

Use structure in auditing and discipline

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. This 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.


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 is your job to encourage and lead, but you cannot control your officers. Sutton says:

“An individual’s actual behavior, despite whatever oaths he or she takes to uphold, can only be determined by that individual’s personal response/action to a given set of circumstances. Those behavioral choices come from within the individual and this taking responsibility for one’s actions is determined by one’s internal set of values. This is the essence of self-accountability.”

Involve Citizens in Policy Making and Review Processes

Along with practicing good internal accountability, law enforcement agencies should 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. Departments should seek to be as transparent as possible, making their policies available to the public.

This may mean 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.

Accountability in 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 establishing clear values, implementing effective policies, and enforcing internal and external accountability, you can take steps toward cutting down misconduct and maximizing the success of everyone you work with.

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