Fallacy and Complexity of Police Accountability

I tend to roll my eyes when I hear screams for police accountability. Not because I don't believe in holding our cops to standards. But because those screaming loudest rarely reference or discuss which standards aren't being maintained. And if so, they use a different vocabulary from that used within that particular body, group, realm, arena, or community. 

Police powers and force are complex topics -- because of how many perspectives, values, beliefs, experiences, and ideas are out there. Some philosophies are simply a tad disjointed or misaligned. Others are in direct conflict with each other! 

So which standards, bodies, or realms am I talking about?

I've grouped, separated, and outlined ten (10) of them here:

  1. CRIMINAL LAW determines whether a police officer is sent to prison or not. The standard is criminal statutes, especially those regarding special powers given to peace officers in the performance of official duties. Findings are fairly binary: Guilty or Not Guilty. Sentencing allows for more discretion. 
  2. CIVIL LAW determines whether a police officer or agency must write a big check or not. Case law is the growing body of previously-opined situations that act as guidelines and benchmarks for police officer behavior. It even includes all those Supreme Court cases decided by slim margins. Again, findings are fairly binary. 
  3. POLICY is set by individual police departments. It keeps the bounds required to maintain employment. It often mirrors criminal and civil law standards, but also frequently is more restrictive in police powers than either criminal or civil law. Punishments can be less objective than legal rulings.  Violations of policy range from verbal reprimands to termination from the job. 
  4. SCIENCE determines whether the police officer is Superman or just a regular human being. This is where "human factors" of awareness, perception, decision-making, and performance enter the arena. Officers can only perform as well as humanly possible. There's really no punishment for disobeying natural laws of science. 
  5. TRAINING covers the intentional and unintentional adaptations made in police officers over the course of professional learning. I often lump in personal real life experiences into this category, as well as continuing education that an officer attends over the course of a career. Training staff and curriculum often set certain expectations for in-the-field performance by officers. Violations of training (absent other violations of policy or law) do not have much "bite" but may be addressed in follow up training sessions. 
  6. PEERS are the close co-workers of an officer. Humans tend to morph their behaviors in ways to maintain or gain acceptance by their peers. As such, police officers shift their decisions and actions according to subjective standards they perceive to be among their co-workers. Alienation/acceptance has been argued to be more important in policing than in other industries, given the literal reliance upon peers for personal life safety.
  7. CULTURE is the climate of a larger police community, whether agency-, region-, or national-wide. It can include police television culture, anonymous police twitter, or feelings curated through industry conferences, magazines, or influential police talking-heads. 
  8. PERSONAL standards are the most subjective and varied. They refer to the individual values, priorities, philosophies, and mindsets. As suspected, officers hold a variety of political, religious, and social views. Maybe surprising to some, a stack of surveys and research indicate officers' personal values are often seen as higher (more restrictive use of powers) than those of law or policy. Many suggest that officers who struggle with violations or compromises of their personal values are those most susceptible to long-term emotional turmoil and self-harm. 
  9. SUPERVISORs often set expectations for behavior among their teams. These can be where policy leaves off, or expectations that are higher than what policy allows/demands. The interplay between subordinate police officer and police supervisor do drive the behaviors of subordinates - for good or bad. Some subordinates do not want to disappoint their bosses; others will do things just to piss off their bosses. As such, violations have few clear-cut ramifications. 
  10. COMMUNITY is somewhat of a fallacy. There is no homogeneity of community. It's more diverse than even individual officers. It includes neighborhood, City, State, region, and national scopes. We can lump in residents, business owners, advocacy groups, protestors, anonymous social media accounts, religious leaders, political hacks, media/press/journalists, and more. It has extremists at every end of the spectrums, and every moderate in-between. Violations of "community standards" result in losses of trust among those groups who feel there was a wrong.

My purpose of this post is to help guide and enhance the discussion of police accountability.

The discussion must first include which standards of behavior are being referenced.  Only then can we argue about the placement, height, leniency, impossibility, reasonableness, or preferences of where those standards sit.

Basically, which high jump bar are we talking about...before discussing if it's set at the right height.

harvested from an old 2016 Twitter post
I tend to believe that accountability is a fallacy, in that it lacks any sense of singularity of standards, expectations, or values. The diversity of standards is what makes policing such a complex environment.

Let's assume we wanted to simplify the above ten (10) standards/bodies. What might that look like?

  • Law (Criminal & Civil)
  • Agency (Policy & Training)
  • Cops (Peers, Supervisor, Culture, Individual)
  • Community 

That is still a complex endeavor, with plenty of potential conflict among the interests, values, and priorities during complex situations in dark alleys.

When these standards are harmonized in alignment, decisions tend to come easy. As do judgements and evaluations of the police officers.

But when the standards and expectations are not aligned, we will continue to rely on 5-4 court decisions, imperfect internal affairs investigations, premature protests in the street, lackluster training,  politically-driven policy manuals, and officer wellness issues.

Can any of this above help steer the debates into meaningful dialogue?

Or are we beyond that?


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model


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