This blog is part of a series written by our subject matter experts that will explore key topics for reimagining policing in America. Click here to subscribe to our blog and receive the latest updates.

The Co-Produced Public Safety (CPPS) model has the potential to reshape the direction of a police department and its relationship with the community. Our in-house experts leveraged their personal experiences and institutional knowledge to create this blueprint for addressing several commonplace issues – including those surrounding police accountability.

Accountability comes in many forms for public safety agencies, such as ensuring that officers are held accountable for their actions and the department as a whole is held accountable to the community that it serves.

We have found that building or improving accountability protocols starts with three critical factors:

  • The culture within a public safety agency and how it impacts officers’ behavior
  • Supervisors and their role in intervening when they witness or hear about misconduct
  • Transparency with the community, including sharing intelligence and processes regarding misconduct allegations and investigations

Changing Police Culture Can Lead to Better Accountability

Any discussion about changing police culture must begin by acknowledging that, while many agencies have made great strides in professionalizing the services they render to their communities, challenges still exist when it comes to ensuring that all members of a department are on board with organizational changes. In reality, not all officers have embraced new policing approaches.

When a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck as Floyd repeatedly expressed his inability to breath, three officers stood by and did nothing. Their inaction went directly against progressive policing approaches that emphasize officer accountability. New policing approaches demand that officers witnessing excessive use of force, take action to stop it.

Earlier in my career as a criminal investigator, I experienced another example misconduct enabled by a department’s culture. I arrested a subject while he was committing a felony crime. After handcuffing him, he told me to check his back pocket. I retrieved a wallet containing his police badge and credentials, and he said, “Can’t you cut me a break?” The culture of this officer’s department allowed him to consider committing a felony crime, something that, he believed, fellow law enforcement officer should overlook. After he was sentenced to prison, I spoke to several officers from his department about his crime, and they told me they “were not surprised.”

Supervisors Need to Hold Officers Accountable

Supervision is another critical pillar of police professional accountability and one that cannot be overstated. Ineffective supervisors can foster misconduct that contributes to and permeates a department’s culture. Simply put, many police supervisors are not having the tough conversations with subordinates when they need to be had.

One of my most difficult supervisory conversations was with a well-liked, respected veteran investigator after a third incident involving negligence that placed the lives of his colleagues at risk. Counseling, training and discipline had not worked. I was transferring him from the unit in which he had worked for over a decade, his “beloved family,” to a position where he was not a danger. He was upset and retired in response, but I know that I made the right decision addressing this person’s behavior before any possible future incidents.

Police supervisors have the most contact with officers and the most impact on officers’ behavior and perceptions and play a major role in developing department culture. Supervisors can set the tone for their colleagues’ professionalism in many ways by serving as role models, trainers, counselors and coaches, all the while developing and holding their officers accountable.

  • Effective communication and a supervisorial style can be instrumental in officer job satisfaction. In the words of the Persian Poet Jalal Rumi, “Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” Good supervisors positively nurture officers and demonstrate professionalism through their own daily actions and personal accountability, rather than shouting orders and giving stern lectures.
  • Equally important is a supervisor’s role in the department’s disciplinary process. Their first duty in the process is to decrease the need for discipline by averting officers’ mistakes and policy deviations. When missteps do occur, the first-line supervisor should use the opportunity to help subordinates learn from the experience so that mistakes are not repeated.
  • Supervisors should also champion internal procedural justice, along with police leaders and disciplinary systems. This means listening, being fair, treating officers with respect and showing through actions trust in their decision-making abilities. When officers operate in an environment of receiving procedural justice, they will more likely practice its key tenants with the members of the community they serve.

Accountability is Impossible Without Transparency With the Community

Without transparency, a community will always suspect and lack trust in its police department.  The public must have information about process and outcomes in misconduct investigations, and police personnel need to face consequences for misconduct. Disenfranchised communities feel vulnerable when little or no information about the outcomes of complaint investigations are public, which leads many to believe the investigation’s subject did not receive an appropriate reprimand.

A first step may be to follow the 2015 Final Report of the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing recommendation that local police departments make all policies and data publicly available. The time to demonstrate transparency is not following an event like the tragedy on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis. Transparency should be administered with the community on an ongoing basis, with efforts constantly made to maintain and increase it.

Taking these tangible and measurable steps towards improving the police culture and supervision and transparency protocols, public safety leaders can set a department on a positive path toward better police accountability.

We understand these may seem overwhelming, particularly as we embark on a new future of policing in America. Our Law Enforcement Consulting experts are always available to discuss what’s happening in your department and community. Reach out to us directly and stay tuned for our next blog in this series.

Read about how our team has helped police organizations promote transparency.
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