Ever since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, people all around the country are mobilized to challenge the systemic racism that is deeply embedded in every institution of our country. We are in a moment full of sadness, trauma, and a sense of urgency. Many of us are worried that the moment may slip away and not leave significant changes.

One of the biggest calls in this moment is for police accountability. Whenever there are concentrations of power, it is crucial that there are systems for keeping that power from being misused. And one of the biggest problems we have in the US is that the police have tremendous power, and the systems of accountability to keep that power from being misused are incredibly weak.

Whether or not the police can be held to account is an open question, and at the present moment, many are calling for simply defunding or abolishing police, and replacing them with humanistic ways to keep our communities safe. As long as the power to commit violence in our communities is given to people who are hired by the state, we need to work hard to hold that power to account. In my book, Challenging Power: Democracy and Accountability in a Fractured World, I explore the nature of accountability, and develop an analysis of the five pieces that need to be in place for an attempt at accountability to work.

Martin Luther King Jr. defined power as the ability to achieve purpose. Power is neither good or bad. But when power is concentrated and some are able to achieve their purposes over the will of others, power needs to be held to account. Mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that a concentrated ability to achieve purpose is not used in ways that are harmful. Accountability is a system of feedback, where we see something is a problem, we call out the illegitimacy of the problem, and we find ways to ensure that someone is able to do something to stop that problem. Accountability is a complex five parted process, and it only works when all five parts are strong, and when all five parts are working in synergy. One of the reasons that the police are so out of control in this country is at there is a serious breakdown in several of the elements of the accountability mechanisms that govern the police.

The Five elements of an Effective Accountability Mechanism 

When we work to hold power to account, we give voice to pains, and conceptualize those pains as violating normative social values, we name actors who should be held responsible for those pains, we engage in work to sanction those responsible, and we work to add power to make those sanctions have impact. Looking at each of these five elements of a functioning accountability mechanism will help us to understand what we need to do to hold the police to account.

Voice: For a system of accountability to work someone needs to say publicly that there is a problem. The problem needs to be brought to the attention of people who can do something about it. The widespread use of video to capture the realities of incidents of police violence have been crucial for the shift we are in the midst of. If the murder of George Floyd had not been on tape, the witnesses to the murder who not have been believed. Because of the video, millions saw the murder happen before our eyes. There are many ways to give voice to a problem, but the point is that the problem is shared in public.

Values: The problem then needs to be understood as a violation of values that matter to people. Often accountability is avoided because a problem is seen as an accident, as something natural, as an unfortunate side effect of something, or just the way things are. Seeing the video of George Floyd being killed would have no impact if we don’t value Black lives. All of the evidence in the world will not change police behavior if the people who are in charge of sanctioning the police don’t think it is morally wrong to kill someone like that. And so, a big part of holding the power of the police to account is in showing the killing to have been a moral wrong, and not an accident, an unfortunate side effect of a hard job, or something insignificant, because the person killed was not a person worthy of rights. The voicing the of the problem needs to be put into a strong moral framework.

Responsibility: A big part of holding someone to account is finding who or what to hold responsible for an action. To have accountability, someone or something needs to be held responsible for the action in a way that prevents the action from being repeated. The responsibility for police abuse lies with anyone who is in a position to make a difference. Responsibility doesn’t only mean liable to legal sanction, it doesn’t only mean at fault, or blamable for a problem. Rather it means able to make a difference. So, we all have some responsibility to ensure that there is accountability for acts of police violence. If only the one officer who pulled the trigger, or asphyxiated someone, gets sanctioned, that won’t be enough to prevent future murders. Developing an accountability mechanism requires that responsibilities get parked at a number of doorsteps. There isn’t one set of actions can make a serious social problem go away. Instead, deep systemic change requires many actions at many levels. And that means setting up many accountability mechanisms, with many different claims of responsibility. Who is held responsible, and what kinds of accountability mechanism will be the most effective for solving any given problem, are strategic questions. In the case of police power, that might be a district attorney pressing charges. That might mean a legislator making it illegal to hire police who have serious misconduct records. That might be each of us as members of society working to press those with power to enact those changes. A specific accountability mechanism is developed when we work on one strategic plan to achieve one pathway toward responsibility.

Sanction: For an accountability mechanism to work, someone with the power to make those responsible for a problem needs to be in a position to do something to prevent that harm. For there to be accountability, actions need to have consequences There needs to be a sanction on oppressive behavior, and that sanction needs to be significant. Holding people to account can involve punishment, and it can simply be influence. Just as the responsibility we are talking about here is not limited to legal liability, so a sanction is not only a punishment. Instead it is a consequence for an action that has the effect of changing a behavior. Budgets can be cut. Legitimacy can be lost. Officers can be fired. Rules, jailtime, and fines can be imposed.

Power: In order to make sanctions stick, and be significant enough for there to be accountability, there needs to be enough force in the situation to mobilize the social resources needed to change behavior. When city council members in Minneapolis have a veto proof majority, and can defund the police, and put that money into ways to make a community safer, that is real power. When street protests are strong enough, the city council members can act without too much fear of reprisal.

For an accountability mechanism to work, all five elements need to be present and they need to work in synergy. As I write this, it looks likely that there will be accountability for the murder of George Floyd. His murder was videotaped and given voice via the spread of the video. It was seen in value terms as an outrageous murder of a human being on the ground and in handcuffs.  The responsibility is being taken by the Minneapolis city council and is being focused on the Minneapolis police force. That police force allowed the killer, Derek Chauvin, to stay on the job after committing murders in the past. And that police force had a culture that allowed the other three officers, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J Alexander Kueng, to stand and watch. That police force has a history of systemic and regular mistreatment of the Black and Native populations in Minneapolis. In this case, it makes sense to assign responsibility for the murder of George Floyd to these four officers, but perhaps more significantly, to hold the Minneapolis police force as a whole to account. The sanction being considered by the Minneapolis city council is to defund and dismantle the department. That is a serious sanction. The movement on the streets has helped give the city council the strength of public support to have the power, to not back down from that work.

It is rare for that level of accountability to be reached. Perhaps we are in a time where so much is changing so quickly that serious accountability for police behavior will become the norm. And maybe in some places we will go one step further and take away the power that has been given to the police.

Values and Dehumanization

One of the hardest things that the movement for police accountability has been up against is that Black lives are often not seen as mattering strongly enough by people who administer the criminal justice system, and those who serve on juries. And so, we end up with the values element of accountably mechanisms being the weakest link. If a killing is not a moral outrage, then there won’t be enough strength to apply sanctions to hold the police to account.

The movement to insisted that Black lives matter is the most important aspect of the changes we are seeing. As Patricia Williams has argued, we can have rights, but if those charged with protecting our rights don’t see us as fully human, then those rights will not be enforced. There is tremendous flexibility in how rights are understood and enforced, and how laws are enforced. Having the legal system ready to protect the rights of Black people involves a transformation of deep structures of meaning that have existed for centuries, such that society as a whole will see them as deserving of rights and equal protection of the law.

The dehumanization at the root of this lack of rights is not an accident or a simple prejudice, instead, it is deeply rooted in the history of slavery. As Cheryl Harris has argued, for hundreds of years, human beings were defined in the US as white people, and having property was seen as an important marker of humanity. Black people were seen not as owners of property, but instead, as themselves being property. Sylvia Wynter sees this as part of the set of social processes unleashed five hundred years ago with the origins of capitalism:

The large-scale accumulation of unpaid land, unpaid labor, and overall wealth expropriated by Western Europe from non-European peoples, which was to lay the basis of its global expansion from the fifteenth century onwards, was carried out within the order of truth and the self-evident order of consciousness, of a creed-specific conception of what it was to be human.

The deep systems of relations that are anchored in that history of dehumanization resonate through our political and social systems in ways that are routinely painful, and sometimes lethal, for those constructed in ways that deny their full humanity. Holding to account the power that causes that pain, and sometimes death, will involve a deep transformation of the systems of meaning that deny the full rights of citizenship to Black people.

Challenging dehumanization 

The street protests we are seeing now disrupt business as usual by focusing our attention on the issues of police violence. It causes those with dominating power to have to reconsider the calculus behind their actions. If police killings go largely unnoticed by the public, then an officer who is about to pull a trigger is not likely to worry about going to jail or losing her job. Black Lives Matter transformed what was considered routine and normal behavior into a socially significant moral wrong. Police chiefs and mayors have been held responsible, and the protests have strengthened the spines of those in positions of power to act to transform the cultures within police departments. All of these pieces, working together, can change the calculation of those about to perpetrate these violent crimes. And they can change the institutional structures that enable those acts.

While much of the country is mobilized to demand that the legal system treat Black lives as mattering, there is also a counter narrative of white supremacy which is simultaneously inflaming white panic around the impending loss of a white majority in the country. These narratives of humanity and dehumanization are being fought out at every level of our culture. In the social media feeds of many young people in the country any level of dehumanization is being called out as entirely unacceptable. The protests for Black lives that are taking place in white communities all around the country testify to the fact that something is shifting in how many whites perceive racism at this moment. Many mainstream whites, and people of color as well, have moved from a state of minimization and denial, to one of solidarity. That is true even as forty percent of the country still support the racist project led by Trump.

As the anti-racist narrative gains ground and historical dehumanization is challenged at every level in society, it becomes much more likely that people will get fair trials and sentences, that juries will convict police officers, that people making budget decisions will decide to fund the things that lead to the possibilities of good lives.  Those trends are up against the counter trend of a judiciary controlled by extremist right wing judges, the complacency of people in those systems who don’t care, and by the inflamed and increasingly violent movement for white supremacy.

Creating Accountability to end Police Murder 

For us to make the most of the moment we are in, we all need to take responsibility for creating as much accountability as we can to take away the power of the police to terrorize communities of color. Organizations such as the M4BL (Movement for Black Lives) and SURJ (Standing up for Racial Justice) are putting out clear and specific calls to action that anyone, no matter what their level of experience, can take. Every place in this country has a good target one can work on.

San Francisco’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin is working to prevent the San Francisco Police Department from hiring any officers who have history of mistreatment. Many municipalities are developing legal sanctions against officers who don’t intervene when another officer is involved with misconduct. States are making misconduct records public. There is change being made in use of force policies. There are calls for budget justice, which includes completely, or partially, cutting the police budget and giving those resources to social services. There are elections all around the country where people can run, or work to elect people who will make a difference.

In The End of Policing Alex Vitali argues that over the years the role of the police in society has expanded to dealing with an ever larger number of social problems, such as the misbehavior of kids in school, people on the streets having mental breakdowns, and domestic abuse. There are many people with excellent training in counseling and social work who are much more qualified to help with those problems than are the police. We can take those roles from the police and give them to people who have the proper training. This is a moment where we can all work to make the power that is given to police forces more accountable, while we also work to take that power away.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Accountability So We Can Hold the Police to Account

  1. In addition, there is a book entitled “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” published in 2013 by investigative journalist Radley Balko who focuses on the subject of militarization of police in the United States.

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