There’s no such a thing as “enforced” accountability.
By Avery Ware
Last month, President Joe Biden unveiled proposed legislation called the “Safer America Plan.” It essentially has three components; to increase funding for the police, invest in what’s termed “crime prevention,” and gun control. The president put it succinctly in an August 30th address in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, saying that this proposed policy is “based on a simple notion. When it comes to public safety in this nation, the answer is not ‘defund the police.’ It’s fund the police.” Cleveland mayor Justin Bibb agreed, telling NBC news that same day that, “I get both sides of this. I get the importance of police accountability, but I also understand the importance of investing in good, quality law enforcement.”
Nationally, Biden’s Safer America Plan has received both praise and rightful backlash. Locally, the same can be said for Bibb’s statements of support. However, I’m not interested in either praising or criticizing the reasoning of Mayor Bibb. I do not want to use this space to discuss how increased funding for police budgets does not actually reduce crime. I’m not interested in delineating how police disproportionately antagonize, brutalize, and murder Black people at significantly higher rates. It would be redundant for me to explain how the Department of Justice found that the Cleveland Police Department withheld documents from its oversight panel investigating police brutality. We would be here all day if we wanted to unpack these data-proven, documented truths.
Besides, all of us already know this already. Rather, I would like to talk about words, because I believe that the interrogation of language is useful in identifying political contradictions. Often deadly political contradictions. In particular, the phrase “police accountability.” On the surface, “police accountability” sounds innocuous enough – even progressive. But “accountability” connotes much more than actions and consequences. And in the context of a police state, true accountability would require a complete cultural and political shift.
Setting aside politics for a bit, even the simplest and most basic definitions of accountability must be analyzed in the context of the police state. Let’s take a look at some basic, everyday definitions of accountability. Websites used by school children everyday like Dictionary.com define the word as meaning “the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable,” while Vocabulary.com defines accountability as a “accepting responsibility…. A government has accountability for decisions and laws… an individual has accountability for acts and behaviors…. taking accountability means admitting you made a mistake. … accountability shows ownership and a willingness to admit mistakes.”
“Police accountability” is a phrase that has long existed, but there has been an uptick in its usage since the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent summer-long uprisings and large-scale Black Lives Matter organizing that followed in Summer 2020. As proposals grew louder to defund the police, and allocate those funds to effective community resources, police accountability was further thrust into the political zeitgeist as a reformist effort to quell dissent and seemingly appease protestors and organizers.
Using these basic definitions of accountability, I’d like to hold space to delineate how under our current political system, police accountability is an oxymoron that does not make our communities safe, healthy, nor vibrant. This oxymoron has three components – time and place, power and consent, practice over performance.
Per his website, Mayor Bibb’s intention for Cleveland is to provide, “safe, healthy, vibrant neighborhoods with quality, responsive services” and to, “allocate resources that will do the job and meet people’s needs.” A heavy reliance on police accountability is core to this plan. His website claims that “Police misconduct has cost Cleveland nearly $30 million over the last decade. Trust is broken and the only way to restore it is by insisting on better training and stronger citizen oversight of police. As the son of a police officer, this is personal to me, too. We can’t have public safety and true justice without more police accountability…”
This sounds decent in theory. But, in reality, we are often asking the wrong questions in what’s often a very deadly situation for actual citizens. Because in reality, accountability can only happen after the harm has been done. By the time an oversight board meets, blood is already in the streets. Families and communities are already mourning. Citizens are already brutalized and traumatized. Documented evidence has proven to us that consequences are hardly resultant in inflicting harm in a police state.
At best, the hope for police accountability is a reactive request to a prevailing and established social order. Waiting for police violence to occur instead of being proactive in preventing harm caused by the police, especially in marginalized communities, is antithetical to “safe” and “healthy”. Especially when research shows that investing in non-carceral approaches to affordable housing, public and mental health services, education, community policing, environmental justice reduces crime and strengthens communities. To Mayor Bibb’s credit, some of this is addressed on his website, but not in the context of crime prevention and police intervention. A whole different way of thinking needs to be engaged.
Consent and Power
Mayor Bibb’s police accountability model is heavily reliant on a citizen-led oversight board that is meant to review and investigate police misconduct and propose appropriate sanctions. This is not a new method for police accountability. The aforementioned federal consent decree handed down by the DOJ, and the community outrage after the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, further encouraged a review board to hold police officers accountable, especially for actions that led to the murder of people.
A core component of the actual definition of accountability is consent. Per the aforementioned definitions, accountability requires accepting responsibility. It would have to start with individual officers and police departments freely and openly asserting that their actions were wrong and harmful – something I’ve never witnessed in my lifetime. In a way, responsibility is the first step in accountability. You can’t be answerable to an offense (as our basic Dictionary.com definition suggests) if you have not first taken responsibility for said offense.
There’s no such a thing as “enforced” accountability. For me, that’s called a consequence or a punishment. A relevant example of this is Derek Chauvin – the murderer of George Floyd. With Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd and his sentencing of 22.5 years in prison, some incorrectly referred to this as police accountability. Headline after headline read, “Derek Chauvin Verdict Means Accountability, Not Justice,” but, in reality, it’s neither of those things. More correct to say that Chauvin’s sentence was a convenience rather than a consequence.
Using carceral solutions to carceral problems only reinforces white supremacy instead of addressing the root causes of police brutality. Which brings me to my third and final contention.
Practice over performance
Accountability, when done in earnest, is a transformative practice. It is not a one-off experience, but an active and intentional practice that has the ability to free us from normative narratives and passively accepted truths.
True accountability would mean for our elected officials to be honest about how their inaction aids perpetual police violence, so that politicians could then enter into meaningful communal conversations about offering restorative, non-carceral approaches to ensure our communities are safe from police violence.
Police accountability, as defined by Mayor Bibb and President Biden, is the metaphorical equivalent of placing a band aid over a bullet hole. It is not the answer for safe, healthy, vibrant communities. By being honest and intentional with the language we use, by defining what exactly real accountability would look like, is at least a first step to all of us actually getting there.
Avery (he/they) is writer, educator, and higher education professional based in Cleveland, OH. Through his work, Avery is dedicated to truth-telling, rule-breaking, [un]learning and doing it all in style. He holds a MA in American Studies from Youngstown State University and a BA in Sociology from The University of Akron. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow their work on Twitter @/averylondon_