Five Facts about Police Accountability
Outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has spurred nationwide discussions of police accountability. Legal barriers, strong police unions and other factors have limited such accountability in the past.
- U.S. killings by police have remained largely steady for years.
The 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., generated widespread scrutiny of police killings in America. But fatal police shootings have remained roughly steady at about 1,000 a year since then, researchers say. A Washington Post study found that “since 2015, police have shot and killed 5,400 people,” a consistency that has “confounded those who have spent decades studying the issue.”
- Punishment of excessive force by police is rare.
Despite increased public scrutiny, “police are rarely held accountable for excessive use of force,” according to a 2017 report by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. From 2005 to 2017, the report said, 13 police officers were “convicted of murder or manslaughter for a fatal, on-duty shooting.” In the same time frame, 54 officers nationwide “were criminally charged after they shot and killed someone in the line of duty.” As of April 2015, 21 of those officers had been acquitted, 11 were convicted, and the other 22 cases were pending or filed as “other.” The report said the “high acquittal rate is perhaps even more troubling given that in 80 percent of these cases, one of the following occurred: there was a video recording of the incident, the victim was shot in the back, other officers testified against the shooter, or a cover-up was alleged.”
- Police unions often protect officers from scrutiny or sanctions.
A recent New York Times report concludes that even amid widespread protests of police misconduct, “it remains notoriously difficult in the United States to hold officers accountable, in part because of the political clout of police unions, the reluctance of investigators, prosecutors and juries to second-guess an officer’s split-second decision and the wide latitude the law gives police officers to use force.” Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor, told The Washington Post, “There are so many terms and conditions in the collective bargaining agreements that insulate police from accountability and transparency.” A report by the nonprofit Opportunity Agenda’s Criminal Justice Initiative urges states to require that police union contracts no longer erect barriers “to effective misconduct investigations and civilian oversight.” Problematic provisions, it said, include those that allow officers to wait 48 hours before being interrogated after an incident; prevent an officer’s name or picture from being publicly released; and prohibit civilians from having the power to discipline, subpoena or interrogate police officers.
- The doctrine of “qualified immunity” often protects police misconduct from civil sanctions.
Qualifed immunity is a “judicially created doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations—like the right to be free from excessive police force—for money damages under federal law so long as the officials did not violate ‘clearly established’ law.” That legal barrier is so high that “the unconstitutionality of seemingly egregious behavior never has the chance to become ‘clearly established’ law, stymying efforts to increase accountability or secure institutional reform,” says the report by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.
- Civilian oversight of police behavior is often ineffective.
According to a PBS Frontline investigation, surveys of civilian review boards have found them “vulnerable to inadequate funding or staffing, or slow-moving investigations. Some boards are unable to subpoena officers, while others lack the authority to carry out their own investigations.” Tim Lynch, who has surveyed such bodies as director of the Cato Institute’s project on criminal justice, said: “I tend to be skeptical of the track record of civilian review boards,” in part because “they’re very vulnerable to local political manipulations.”