Police accountability is a term used to describe the high expectation placed upon law enforcement agencies and individual officers to act in a responsible and legal manner while upholding the law and controlling crime. This expectation placed on law enforcement agencies by public communities is further accompanied by the expectation that all citizens will be treated equally under the law. Systems that help assure police accountability include democratic elections, public reviews, internal reviews and processes for citizen reviews.
In various parts of the world and particularly in democratic societies, law enforcement officers are expected to serve and protect individual citizens. Police accountability assures that these actions take place in a uniform manner without discrimination or abuse. Policies, procedures, laws and various review processes exist to ensure that things such as arrests and trials are carried out with due process, and that police investigations are both thoroughly and objectively performed.
While police accountability largely refers to interactions between law enforcement officials and the public, an expectation of internal accountability exists, as well. Sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bullying and other forms of workplace discrimination are considered intolerable within public law enforcement agencies in many countries throughout the world. Failure to abide by the law of the land, as well as the ethics of individual departments, generally results in lawsuits, individual reprimands, temporary suspensions or dismissals.
Under democratic governments when police accountability is lacking, not only are individual law enforcement agents punished, but democratically elected officials also face possible dismissal and a loss of public trust. A community’s citizens are least likely to vote for public officials who do not demand the highest levels of accountability from law enforcement agencies as abuses of power and negligence puts the safety of entire communities at risk. In addition to a system to accept individual complaints from the community, as well as internal review processes, independent watchdog groups often exist for the sole purpose of monitoring police accountability, particularly in areas where incidents of civil rights violations have raised concerns about accountability.
Without high levels of police accountability, the likelihood of rogue officers, illegal search and seizure incidents, violations of civil rights and various other abuses of power are high. Historically, lawsuits against various law enforcement agencies stemming from allegations of police abuse have shaped the level of accountability in certain jurisdictions. Police accountability and confidence is necessary for public trust, as well as for public safety.