To Protect and Serve—and Be Held Accountable

By , CPE Staff

The first month of 2023 was marked by seemingly constant reports of police killings. Takar Smith, Oscar Leon Sanchez, and Keenan Anderson were all killed in Los Angeles inside the year's first 72 hours; days later, Tyre Nichols was killed in Memphis; the following week, law enforcement in Atlanta killed an environmental activist known as Tortuguita. Even that list is woefully incomplete, and in the meantime, we're a few weeks into another month. Law enforcement officers kill more than 1,000 people in this country every single year; while roughly half of the victims are White, policing agencies' own data demonstrate that Black and Brown men are significantly more likely to be among the victims, out of all proportion to their numbers in society.

These figures are particularly distressing in light of the uprisings and subsequent promises for far-reaching change following the 2020 murder of George Floyd; Derek Chauvin's conviction for that murder remains an extreme outlier. Even the Memphis Police Chief's decision to fire and arrest five officers seen in video footage brutally beating Tyre Nichols is unusual to the point of aberration—and concerns over the fact that those officers, who are Black, were almost immediately arrested and charged with second-degree murder while the officer who initially deployed his taser, who is White, was merely fired, remain unresolved.

The New York Times reported in 2020 that in the previous 15 years, only 121 officers—from anywhere in the country—had been arrested and charged with murder or manslaughter for what would have been over 15,000 on-duty killings in the same time period. Of the 95 cases that had concluded, fewer than half ended in conviction, and even in those cases, the conviction was often for a lesser charge. In 2022, the Los Angeles Police Department's Inspector General issued a report looking at disciplinary actions resulting from "out-of-policy" shootings; of the 66 officers responsible for such shootings, exactly one lost their job. Two resigned before they could be disciplined, 20 were suspended, 13 reprimanded, three cases were still in process when the report was issued, and 27 faced no disciplinary action of any kind. Moreover, even when some kind of disciplinary action is carried out against officers found to have engaged in excessive use of force, they often find police work elsewhere—or may even be re-hired by their old department.

The 2014 case of Tamir Rice's killer, Timothy Loehmann, serves as a particularly troubling example: Three years after shooting and killing the 12-year-old within two seconds of arriving at the park where the boy was playing, Loehmann was fired by the Cleveland Police Department—for lying on his job application, not for killing a child. In 2020, the U.S. Justice Department found "insufficient evidence" to support federal criminal charges against Loehmann, largely as a result of particularly high evidentiary requirements laid out in the applicable criminal statute. In 2022, he was hired by the small town of Tioga, Pennsylvania as their only police officer.

What eventually resulted in Loehmann facing the barest consequences was the bright light of public awareness: Pennsylvania news outlet the Williamsport Sun-Gazette reported on the hiring, and the resultant public outcry was such that he left the position two days into his tenure. Yet, having the opportunity to voluntarily leave a new job after killing a 12-year-old can hardly be considered genuine accountability.

In order to achieve what might be called genuine accountability, politicians and law enforcement agencies must begin not just to call for or promise change, but to do the hard work of actually effecting that change. The data science that CPE produces, the experiences of communities that lead our public safety redesign efforts, and the successful outcomes in departments that have begun that hard work all point to one thing: When we take racially disparate policing outcomes seriously, treat them like a solvable problem rather than an inevitability, and are guided by the Black and Brown communities that have long carried the trauma of those outcomes—we are able to transform public safety for everyone.

One of the most common refrains heard in the aftermath of those rare police killings that capture national attention is a demand for more, or better, officer training. The simple truth, however, is that nothing trains like accountability. 

A second simple truth: We will have many opportunities to put that truism to the test as 2023 continues. 

It is imperative that we develop robust accountability mechanisms for those responsible for the death, injury, and trauma inflicted in excessive use of force cases. A successful redesign of our public safety systems will demand an all-of-society mobilization, from community leaders, politicians, and law enforcement itself, to everyone watching the news in horror each time new bodycam footage is released. The time to start building the infrastructure to hold the next violent police officer to account is not in the aftermath. It's now.