Importance of Accountability in Law Enforcement

Accountability is an essential part of a healthy law enforcement agency. Discover some ways to ensure transparency and accountability in your department.

December 22, 2020

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Like any organization, every law enforcement agency needs a strong, healthy work culture to operate effectively.

A culture of accountability in law enforcement is of particular importance. Police departments need to create a system of internal checks and balances to make sure officers carry out their duties properly and act with integrity.

Police accountability ensures that officers can work together effectively. They can trust their commanders to make ethical decisions. They know their fellow officers will put the needs of the department and the public ahead of personal interests.

A culture of accountability in law enforcement also builds trust between the police and the community.

The public holds the police to high standards. When police violate the rules, they break public trust and lose credibility. This ultimately makes policing more difficult, as people are unlikely to cooperate with police if they don’t trust them.

Accountability in law enforcement is a key component of effective constitutional and community policing efforts.

When the public sees that law enforcement has systems in place to enforce police accountability, they are more likely to see police as legitimate. And therefore, they will be more willing to assist the police.

There are several different structures and layers of accountability in police work. But lasting accountability in law enforcement begins with fostering a department culture that values integrity and ethics.

Here are a few ways to create a culture of police accountability in your department:

Focus on Shared Values

Law enforcement agencies don’t have to create a culture from scratch. Police work comes with a long history of traditions and deeply held values. Police all over the world share core values such as honor, bravery, and the duty to protect.

Values drive behavior. People make decisions based on their deepest core values. And employees make decisions at work based on what they perceive that their organization values.

So, to create a culture of accountability in law enforcement, departments must emphasize values such as integrity, responsibility, and transparency.

Formal and informal values

To shape a healthy culture, it’s important for your police department to have a formal statement of core values. These values form a foundation for policies, procedures, training, and everything else your department does.

Even if your department doesn’t have a formal statement of values, you have unofficial values that officers live out.

You can see this in how officers talk about their roles and responsibilities. What do officers take seriously? What do they joke about? Are there unspoken expectations new recruits have to conform to be accepted?

To create a culture of accountability in law enforcement, you have to start with these informal values. Some of these values may be healthy.

For example, your officers may feel a strong sense of commitment to serving their community.

However, there may be some unhealthy values mixed in. Officers may value bravery and justice over honesty and compassion. They may feel that they are justified in going to any lengths in order to lock up criminals.

This kind of mindset can lead to unethical behavior if not addressed.

To create a healthy department culture, you need to make sure your formal values match what your officers and leaders are living out in their day to day duties.

As the National Institute of Justice points out in Perspectives on Policing,

“The problem is that police departments, like many organizations, are guided by implicit values that are often at odds with explicit values. This breeds confusion, distrust, and cynicism rather than clarity, commitment, and high morale.”

In order to foster a culture of accountability in law enforcement, make sure your agency’s values are repeated regularly and reinforced in everything your department does.

Make Culture a Topic of Conversation

A strong culture of accountability in law enforcement requires buy-in from every individual officer and leader. Ethics and integrity need to be expected and enforced by everyone.

Culture can’t be dictated, it has to be lived out. And cultural change works best when everyone is involved. Creating a healthy department culture requires transparency and open communication.


Talk with both command and fellow officers

Accountability in law enforcement has to start at the top. It’s essential for command staff to set an example of following policies and procedures and acting with integrity both on and off duty.

As Randy Sutton wrote in an article in Police One,

“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.”

However, a healthy department culture has to be lived out at all levels of the organization.

Police departments should talk about and train on accountability and ethics with everyone from new recruits to command officers. Demonstrated accountability and ethical behavior should be a major factor in hiring and promotions.

Don’t wait until small issues turn into larger failings to have a conversation about your department’s values, practices, and culture.

Make space for regular discussions about issues in the department. And involve staff from every level of the department in these conversations.

Along with discussing issues facing the department, talk about what officers should do if they see a fellow officer or leader doing something unsafe, inappropriate, or immoral.

Talking about issues up front can help you address potential problems before they damage your department.

Conduct a department culture survey

One way to gauge how your officers see your department’s culture is to conduct an anonymous survey.

Officers may be more forthcoming if they know their comments are anonymous. This kind of survey provides an opportunity for your department to see what officers think and what problems they see within the department.


In Fresno Police Department's officer survey, the department asks respondents for their opinion on department leadership, performance, and morale.

The survey examines officer attitudes about accountability by asking respondents to rate how strongly they agree or disagree with statements such as: “In my unit, it is sometimes necessary to ignore or bend agency policies to accomplish our objectives.”

Gathering this sort of feedback can be a starting point to talk about your department’s culture, attitudes, and expectations.

You can adjust policies, training, and communication to address problematic attitudes.

Create an Expectation of Accountability

Of course, accountability in law enforcement has to be more that just a stated expectation or a topic of conversation.

In order to hold officers accountable, police departments must create and enforce policies, procedures, and other rules.

There are several different layers and strategies for accountability in law enforcement, and they are all interrelated. Make sure your department’s policies, training, and supervision all work together for effective accountability.

Policy manual

It’s impossible to hold police officers accountable if there are no formal rules to hold them to.

Your department’s policy manual outlines what the department expects from officers. This is the standard for accountability.

If there is a consistent issue or problem within your department, that can mean one of two things: Either there isn’t a quality policy on the books, or the department isn’t appropriately applying the existing policy.

Either way, it’s a problem.

Department policies should speak to the department’s core values and outline proper behavior. Policies should be clear and thorough.

It’s not enough to simply write a policy manual, however. In order to foster a culture of accountability in law enforcement, department administrators should make sure every staff member sees, understands, and signs off on policies.

A policy management software can simplify this process.

A policy manual should be a living document. Officers will start straying from policies if the policies are out of date or don’t cover new technologies or practices in policing.

Remember to regularly review and update your policy manual to make sure policies are clear and consistent.

Accountability training

Training helps officers put policies into practice. Onboarding training helps new hires understand expectations, but training should be ongoing for all staff members.

Regular retraining reinforces a culture of accountability and keeps everyone on the same page.

Your department may be able to conduct some training online. But training should also involve lifelike scenarios to help officers learn to make decisions in difficult situations.

It’s especially important to train on areas where police accountability often becomes an issue. Make sure training thoroughly covers things like use of force, search and seizure, and common ethical issues.

Create an accountability/review board

Creating structures for external oversight can also be helpful in creating a culture of accountability in law enforcement.

An accountability or review board can help advise and direct your department’s culture. They can help the department make changes after a major incident. But they should also be involved in conversations about culture and accountability all along the way.

An accountability board may include members of the public and impartial third parties. They can offer objective opinions and make sure the department follows through on disciplinary actions. This can improve public trust in the department.

Police officers have a lot of responsibilities. The public holds police to high standards, and departments need to make sure they are meeting those standards.

As you seek to create a culture of accountability in your department, remember to focus on values, make room for conversation, and build accountability into your policies and training.

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