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The Obstacles to Police Accountability in the United States

Author: Kamilla Kovacs

Editors: Antara Basu and Hannah Westfallen

Over the last decade, the United States has seen several notable cases which reflect the unsustainable and injudicious nature of its policing practices. Police brutality, as demonstrated by the tragic cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tyre Nichols and many more is interlinked with systemic racism and discrimination. Black people are disproportionately affected by police violence, and such cases are glaring examples of how the police uphold systemic racism and act with little regard for the lives of the people they are meant to ‘protect and serve’. However, despite public awareness, so far large-scale change has not arrived and we continue to hear about incidents of police violence and misconduct. A crucial driver of this is a lack of accountability for officers - as the recent killing of Tyre Nichols sadly demonstrated.

On the 7th of January 2023, 29-year-old Tyre Nichols was brutally beaten by police and passed away in the hospital three days later due to sustained injuries. His death at the hands of the police is made all the more tragic when we consider that a number of the officers involved have a history of prior infractions at work. Four officers out of the five charged with second-degree murder had previously been reprimanded or even temporarily suspended from their duties. Two of these reprimands were specifically regarding the use of force. Furthermore, prior to joining the police force officer Haley was a defendant in a civil suit alleging violent contact with an inmate at the Shelby County Correctional Center, where Haley was a correctional officer at the time. While we can only speculate, it is not hard to imagine that if the officers had faced more serious consequences for their prior oversteps, perhaps the case of Tyre Nichols would not have escalated in the manner it tragically did.

A foundational flaw of the current system is the legal structures in place that protect the police over victims and significantly hinder accountability. Police accountability is generally understood as holding officers and departments responsible for the service they provide to a community, and how they treat civilians while providing these services. Ideally, a key component of holding the police accountable would be the prosecution of officers who engaged in serious misconduct.

The issue is that police officers are rarely prosecuted, even in cases when they are responsible for the death of a civilian. For example, in the case of fatal shootings, less than 2% of officers are charged, and even fewer are convicted. There are various reasons contributing to this low rate; from police refusing to investigate fellow officers or prosecutors who have little incentive to press charges given that they work closely with police departments.

Civil suits against officers often fail to provide any meaningful accountability. A key reason for this is the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which protects government officials from liability for violating an individual's constitutional rights. If someone had their constitutional rights infringed upon by the police, in theory, they could pursue a civil suit against the government officials responsible for violating their rights. However, with qualified immunity police are only found personally liable if the officer has broken a “clearly established constitutional right” with their conduct. In practice, this leads to any small difference between previous precedent cases and the conduct in question letting problem officers off the hook. Since civil suits are usually the way victims or their family members can receive compensation for the damages caused by police conduct, this doctrine not only shields officers from liability but imposes a significant financial burden on people whose property or person was violated.

Federal reform on police conduct is also lacking. There are some municipal-level initiatives, but these are often incremental changes which do not prevent police misconduct. These include the introduction of body cameras, changes to use-of-force policies and de-escalation training. However, these policies do not guarantee that police will not engage in the unnecessary use of force - as the recent case of Tyre Nichols proved. The officers involved were all equipped with body cameras (which they did not use in accordance with protocol) and employed methods deemed to be “less than lethal” yet this did not prevent his death at the hands of these officers.

The legal and technical obstacles discussed make holding officers accountable and ending police violence a difficult task. This is frustrating as victims and their families receive no justice and these officers remain in their job and pose a potential danger to other civilians. Furthermore, we must consider how this lack of accountability impacts broader police culture. It is unrealistic to expect incremental changes like body cameras or protocol reviews to prevent violent police conduct when officers continue to work and thrive in an environment where prior offences are overlooked and they have no reason to expect consequences for their actions. If we hope to make any progress, then large-scale reforms are critical, or perhaps a complete rethinking of how we expect the police to operate in society.

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