Why Holding Police ‘Accountable’ Won’t Prevent Shootings of Civilians

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Photo by Peter Burka via Flickr

When a police officer shoots a civilian, a predictable dynamic swings into gear. If the civilian is unarmed, angry relatives and community members demand “accountability” and, ultimately, some form of punishment.

In response, police and their defenders—including unions—go to great lengths to show why the use of force was “justifiable,” and contend that any policy measures intended to restrict or discipline officers’ freedom of action on the street will reduce law enforcement effectiveness and endanger public safety.

The debate has become a sadly familiar accompaniment to dozens of tragic use-of-force incidents across the country over the past decade. But regardless of how such incidents are resolved—with the firing of an officer or a finding of justifiable force—the outcome does little to ensure that future incidents won’t occur, according to Barbara E. Armacost, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Arguing against the current “accountability paradigm” of identifying and then trying to punish individuals responsible for officer-involved shootings, Armacost called on police departments to borrow from the methods used by the aviation industry and medicine and look for the “systemic” flaws that contributed to the tragedies—ranging from a misleading communication from a police dispatcher to departmental policies governing the use of force—in an effort to build a prevention mindset into policing.

“By focusing on systemic causes, [a] systems-oriented review has the effect of spreading the blame so that individual officers are not the only ones held responsible for harm-causing incidents and are not left to bear alone the professional and personal consequences of having taken a human life,” she wrote in an article in the Ohio State Law Journal.

 Armacost cautioned that she was “not arguing that police officers should escape responsibility when they do misbehave.”

“But,” she added, “Our current relentless focus on accountability, while an understandable human reaction, has become the enemy of prevention in the very communities that need it most.”

Armacost acknowledged that structural racism or implicit bias on the part of officers was often at the core of many of the fatal shootings in at-risk communities. But she warned that the energy spent in assessing whether individual incidents were fueled by racial prejudice or stereotyping is no guarantee against similar tragedies from happening again.

Barbara Armacost

Barbara E. Armacost

 “Without in any way minimizing the reality of racism, we need to address police shootings from a different angle,” she wrote, claiming that “the current accountability paradigm— targeting the officer who pulled the trigger— is actually hindering genuine progress in decreasing the numbers of these tragedies, including those motivated by racism.”

The Killing of Tamir Rice

Armacost’s study, first published in July and updated this month, conducted a close review of some of the most infamous cases of police shootings, such as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland officer who mistook the boy’s toy gun for a real one.

But efforts to prosecute or discipline the officers involved in the 2014 incident foundered on the grounds they were judged to have a reasonable fear for their own safety—even if that fear later proved groundless.

Armacost conducted her own “system review” of the incident to tease out some of the misleading indicators—so-called “Sentinel Events” —that should have alerted police management on duty that the so-called threat was non-existent.

The police dispatcher sounded an alert based on a 911 call that there was an active shooter in a public park and quick action was necessary. Police officers immediately reacted according to what they were trained to do under an “active shooter” threat, a policy established by Cleveland like other departments in the wake of the Columbine school shooting.

But in fact the dispatcher had also failed to communicate the full message of the 911 caller, namely that the gun wasprobably fake” and that the person wielding it was “probably” a juvenile.

Although police experts condemned some of the actions taken by the officers in the leadup to the incident as violating police best practices, none established it as the “cause” of the actual shooting—more specifically, whether the assumption that they faced an “active shooter” distorted how the police reacted to the boy.

That was compounded by the fact that they did not register the youth as a juvenile, still seeing the threat through the version they were given by the dispatcher of an adult “black male sitting on the swing…he’s wearing a camouflage hat, a gray jacket with black sleeves. He keeps pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it at people.”

Nor were they apparently aware of the possibility that the gun wielded by the boy was fake.

That effectively set in motion the series of errors that would lead to the mistaken shooting, which Armacost described as “prior workplace mistakes, holes in an earlier layer of Swiss cheese, weaknesses in the layers of protection that might have reduced the risk of (or prevented) the accident.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, Tamir Rice’s family and community called for criminal prosecutions of the officers and filed a wrongful death suit against the officers. But three separate investigations concluded that the officers acted lawfully on the reasonable belief, based on the facts and circumstances known to them at the time, that Tamir Rice was reaching into his waistband to pull out a real gun.

“If the officers had followed department policy of waiting for backup, designed to neutralize a potentially dangerous gunman: and if the officers had received the correct information about the suspect, (and) taken more time to consider their approach, and kept in touch with the dispatcher, the situation might have resolved without a shooting,” Armacost wrote.

Reviews such as these are essential to understanding how “organizational” errors contributed to the human errors that resulted in Rice’s death, Armacost observed.

In contrast, she continued, the typical drive to establish accountability falls prey to at least two fatal errors that have effectively distorted the discussions about police-involved shootings in the U.S.:

      • A ‘single-minded focus” on the officer or officers who discharged their weapons overshadows or neutralizes any effort to examine the departmental policies that led them to act the way they did;
      • A focus on whether a shooting was “justifiable” or “reasonable” complicates the task of examining any of the actions that may have influenced the officers’ behavior, such as a misleading communication by the dispatcher in the Tamir Rice case;

Pointing out that few officers have actually been disciplined in most of the suits or investigations of police-involved shootings, fueling further anger and protest by community members and relatives, Armacost concluded the current process only contributed to further widening of the gulf between police and the community.

Sentinel Event Review

She suggested that a version of the kind of “mandatory” Sentinel Event Review now in place in the aviation industry (and promoted in several pilot projects by the National Institute of Justice) would go a long way towards reducing such tragedies—even though both police and community members might initially resist that approach.

“By reducing the likelihood that sharp-end actors will make mistakes— including reasonable mistakes— systems solutions should ultimately reduce the likelihood that officers will be blamed for just doing their job,” Armacost wrote.

Addressing the community response, she agreed that when police shootings occur, “the need to hold someone accountable is deeply embedded in human nature.”

But Sentinel Event analyses are not intended to replace accountability reviews, Armacost argued.

“The best response to the anticipated public reaction against systems-oriented review is this: the vast majority of police-involved shootings are ultimately deemed justified or reasonable by police investigators and courts, and that is the end of the investigation,” she wrote.

“Most police-involved shootings do not result in criminal charges and even fewer in convictions. This is true even in the many cases in which the shooting was factually unnecessary under the circumstances (i.e., the suspect was unarmed or the officer s safety was not actually at risk).

“As much as we might want to think otherwise, under our current system, there is almost no accountability of the sort communities are crying out for. By adopting systems-oriented review, virtually nothing will be lost, and much will be gained.”

The full study can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR Executive Editor Stephen Handelman

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