19 Apr Police Accountability Remains an Issue Despite Justice Reform Efforts
The Derek Chauvin trial has commanded headlines for almost two weeks as the world waited to see whether or not Chauvin would be punished for George Floyd’s death. But then police killed Daunte Wright within walking distance of the trial. Adam Toledo, just 13 years old, was shot by a Chicago police officer while his hands were up. While some states like Colorado have worked to end qualified immunity, the reality is that few police shootings result in measurable consequences. Police accountability is an essential part of justice reform, and these officer-involved shootings aren’t going to go away until lawmakers put meaningful accountability measures in place.
Studies find that police officer accountability is rare after fatal shootings.
According to Public Citizen, officers face criminal charges in less than two percent of all officer-involved shootings. The data, pulled from Mapping Police Violence, a collaborative tracking cases of police brutality nationwide, is alarming. It implies that, despite reform measures, police accountability is still remarkably low.
The researchers involved acknowledge that the data is not perfect, in large part because police departments make it difficult to track police violence. What they’ve found about police violence trends from 2013 to 2020 suggests that holding officers accountable is paramount to ending police violence, though.
Based on their data, police killed 308 people from Jan. 1 through Apr. 17 of 2021. That’s about three people per day. Of those, nearly 100 did not have a weapon. The data also suggests that police are three times more likely to kill Black people than white people. Despite the increase in attention to police-brutality cases since 2013, officers are trending slightly above average for the rate of police killings at this point in the year. In other words, reform efforts are not leading to meaningful change. That’s why activists and even some congressional committees are calling for more police accountability across the board.
So far, there is nothing to suggest that increased police training and body cams have made a difference.
Two things that police departments look to in response to officer-involved shootings are more training and body cameras for officers. Objectively, these measures sound like they would help. If police killings are due to a lack of training in crisis response, or misunderstandings about safe ways to restrain people, then training should help. Body cameras should deter those officers who abuse their power intentionally. However, the data from Mapping Police Violence shows that training isn’t helping. Headlines support their conclusions, too.
Kimberly A. Potter, who killed Daunte Wright, was a 26-year veteran officer who trained others in the department. According to Potter, she mistook her firearm for a taser and shot Wright as he fled. Numerous news outlets have addressed how common this particular defense occurs. After Potter resigned, local officials charged her with manslaughter. The charging papers describe just how unlikely it is that Potter pulled her gun by accident. The defense is even more unsettling given that Potter was responsible for training other officers.
Body cams also don’t deter police killings, either. Many officers believe they’re justified in their use of force or because they know they’re unlikely to face consequences. One reason may be that police departments often investigate their own officers. In Maryland, for example, the law allows police to investigate themselves. When an officer is charged with misconduct, other police officers are in charge of discipline and consequences. Police departments in most places also don’t have to share the findings of their investigations with the public. There does not appear to be any data that supports the idea that these self-conducted investigations lead to police accountability.
The lack of transparency, especially as so many Americans are demanding justice reform, perpetuates distrust of the police.
One target in pending reform measures is civilian oversight. Legislators and activists point out that police departments do not function like the United States military. As such, they say that they should not be allowed to investigate their own. Civilian oversight could also make investigations into officer-involved shootings public. Holding police accountable hinges on ensuring that investigations and disciplinary decisions are transparent. Reformers in the House and Senate may be able to use the publicity around Derek Chauvin’s trial to try to enact several changes that could help.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act looks to increase accountability.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, which is identical to a version passed in the House last year, approaches police reform from numerous angles. One provision that would help hold police accountable is a mandate that departments actively collect data on all investigations into officers. It also proposes several changes to use-of-force guidelines. These changes could lead to more charges against officers in police killings, in large part because it would redefine justifiable homicide.
Presently, departments evaluate whether or not lethal force was “reasonable.” The bill would shift from “reasonable” to “necessary,” putting more pressure on departments to prove that an officer had no choice but to use deadly force. It would also completely ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants. Under the new guidelines, holds like the one that killed George Floyd would be against the law. Departments would also find it much harder to excuse officers of wrongdoing when someone dies while in a chokehold.
Efforts in the bill to increase accountability relate to the prosecution of officers and tracking officer misconduct. The bill would shift the mens rea requirement from “willfulness” to “recklessness.” This change would relieve prosecutors of the burden to prove that an officer acted intentionally. It would, instead, hold police accountable when they act recklessly. It would also make it easier for victims to pursue damages in civil court.
Federal justice reform works to limit police response and better investigate accusations of misconduct.
In addition to redefining terms, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would give the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division more power to subpoena records. It would also help state attorneys general with the resources they need to investigate police departments with a history of misconduct. In fact, the bill would establish a nationwide database to track police misconduct. This database would include reports of use of force data from departments, something that is currently difficult for civilians to obtain.
Holding police accountable requires that departments can determine when an officer has a problematic history in other departments. The database would not just be for civilian oversight. It would make it easier for departments to see if an applicant was investigated for misconduct in previous positions. In essence, officers accused of brutality or abuse would fight it more difficult to remain in the profession.
While no single measure will improve police accountability, a combination of transparency, public investigations, and stricter guidelines around use of force could have a strong impact together. Democrats have signaled that they take accountability seriously, and they’re going to continue pushing for justice reform that changes the way we address police killings nationwide. The question now is whether or not the bill can survive a contentious, and minuscule, Senate majority.