Why Police Accountability Matters
In the past several years, high-profile cases highlighting police misconduct began catapulting into the limelight. Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner have become household names. The issue of police accountability is a longstanding one that goes in and out of national focus, but one that’s been in the forefront of Joseph De Angelis’ mind for more than a decade.
As an assistant professor of criminology and sociology, last year De Angelis completed a report for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to assist jurisdictions in implementing a model of police oversight that best matches their needs. The report includes a brief history and evolution of civilian oversight, existing research on the resources needed for effective oversight, a review of three different oversight models and the results of an organizational survey De Angelis conducted of 97 police oversight agencies nationwide.
The survey helped De Angelis assess what makes police oversight agencies effective. He found that key factors include resources such as funding, staffing and training; transparency; community outreach and involvement; and support from local stakeholders, such as politicians.
While emphasizing that he knows many more good police officers than bad, and that officers work in chaotic environments with complex interpersonal situations, De Angelis is grateful that the issue of accountability has re-emerged. With every police shooting, questions surface about the militarization of police, law enforcement officers’ use of force, police treatment of communities of color and whether certain social groups are over-policed.
According to De Angelis, the sustained interest in these issues has been influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has garnered media attention and pushed the federal government to analyze law enforcement performance in urban communities, while devoting more dollars to support research on police oversight measures.
“Minority neighborhoods and communities of color do suffer disproportionately from undue focus by local police,” said De Angelis, who worked as a policy director and research analyst for two different police oversight agencies that oversee local law enforcement, before coming to UI.
This pattern of misconduct has developed over the past 150 years, De Angelis explained, which he outlined in his DOJ report.
In the 19th century, corruption among law enforcement and government officials ran rampant, especially in New York and Boston, as those in power accepted money to protect gambling dens and brothels. According to De Angelis, it was then that police commissions formed and hiring standards evolved to ensure people were hired based on merit, rather than political connections.
During the civil rights era, civilian review boards formed to handle complaints against police for impeding civil rights in minority communities.
During Ronald Regan’s presidency in the 1980s, De Angelis pointed toward the administration’s politically charged campaign to exploit white working and middle class fears about minority communities, which created racialized discourse and led to “an overemphasis of criminal justice resources on minority neighborhoods.”
After the Rodney King beating in 1991, which gave way to a report on the organizational problems with the LAPD, civilian oversight agencies began to flourish.
But before the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, nobody knew the number of officer-involved shootings in the U.S. because the federal government hasn’t required law enforcement agencies to report such incidents.
In fact, nobody knew how many police oversight agencies existed. De Angelis and his team found 144 nationwide.
“These agencies are designed to open a window to police internal affairs to demonstrate to the public that when allegations of misconduct are raised against an officer, concerns are taken seriously, investigations are thorough and fair, and officers are held accountable,” De Angelis said.
But addressing the issue of police accountability requires a change that goes above and beyond law enforcement agencies.
“Police departments act out the priorities of local governments and communities,” he said. “Their conduct is just the most obvious representation of powerful political figures.”
It’s worth noting, De Angelis said, that “communities that seem to have the fewest problems with police misconduct are in jurisdictions where local officials set a tone that misconduct will not be tolerated.”