What does accountability mean in local government and policing?

The term “accountability” can be vague to anyone who has watched their local government and questioned whether they’re really seeing it in action. The average person probably knows that when a scandal occurs, a local government official should step down — this is the most basic form of accountability, and one that we may witness on a seemingly arbitrary basis. A “scandal” implies that the public, usually by way of the media, cares enough about an abuse of power that the official responsible can no longer be trusted to serve. But what happens when the abuse of power is so ingrained and commonplace that what should be a scandal appears to be the everyday course of doing business?

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and so many others in the last months are only the most recent examples of unchecked abuse of power in local police departments. Protesters and advocates have demanded for decades that police who have shot civilians should be held to account. We have proposed meaningful reforms, now centering the #8toAbolition platform, in cities across the US, and while some city councils have opted to implement a few of the #8toAbolition tenets, many have hidden behind claims that transparency and accountability can provide what organizers actually want without going the whole nine yards for abolition.

At this point, I’ve sat on multiple city council hearings for the City of Houston and spoken with organizers across various groups and ideologies, and one thing has become abundantly clear. Our policymakers don’t seem to know how to institute accountability measures that will actually transcend the centuries of systemic racism that have created police departments that operate outside the law to punish poor people and people of color.

Transparency and accountability are fundamental elements of a functional democracy, at the federal and at the local level. The Trump administration has proven over and over again that a lack of transparency and accountability in government disproportionately affects people of color. The same is true at the local level, where it’s clear that elected officials and police departments explicitly attempt to hide information that exposes the violence of tactics being used against Black and Latinx people.

Local transparency requirements, which are just the very first step in creating participatory local democracies, can include policies for open data, open meetings, freedom of information requests, open contracting, and generally the implementation of technologies that make it easier for the public to see what governments are doing on a day-to-day basis. Many cities in the US have these basics but struggle to culturally adapt to full transparency in part due to (normal) challenges implementing new tech systems and governance procedures.

While cities fight to meet the bare minimum of transparency requirements at the local level, accountability flounders even further. But that does not mean that city governments need to repeat the mistakes of learning about how transparency works before holding local officials to account. Put more simply: You do not need an open data portal to fire people who have abused their power or participated in corrupt acts as public servants.

The claim that publishing open data on police misconduct will stop abuse of power by police officers is misguided at best. If anything, influence flows the other way around. The abuse of power by police officers will affect the city’s ability to openly publish trustworthy information on police misconduct.

Of course, firing officers who have done wrong and been dragged up and down the media is a form of accountability, and one that many cities have responded to, but it is not a sustainable solution for preventing police violence in the future. After all, in the middle of a global pandemic and an unemployment crisis, journalists will not always be able to do the dirty work of short-cutting public accountability processes to ensure that the bad actors that we know of are fired.

So what do independently functioning, sustainable mechanisms for accountability in local government look like?

First, participatory governing is crucial for enforcing accountability according to the will of the people. Public opinion changes with current events, and elections, at this point, feel too slow to respond to the fast-shifting landscape of present day crises in the US. Besides, elections have never been the only way or even the best way for people to participate in government. People should be able to have a say in the everyday operations of their government, and in annual budget cycles through participatory budgeting processes. The more that public servants at every level, not just elected officials, reach out for public engagement around relevant community issues like housing, health, labor, and education, the more everyday people will have opportunities to collectively govern the resources that are available to us and our neighbors.

Second, independent oversight groups with real access to power and decision-making must have an internal view to check government operations and report back to the people. In English, the word for this is an ombudsman; in Spanish, it is defensor del pueblo, or defender of the people. In practice, this can look like citizen oversight boards, like the Oakland Police Commission, which do not solve policing problems writ large, but do provide an important lever for public participation when problems arise. Five cities and counties in the US have Ombudsmen, though these roles tend to be neutralized in our cities more than in Latin American cities like Buenos Aires where defensores del pueblo actively engage the citizenry during moments of collective action like labor strikes or mass protests. These mechanisms are imperfect, but if strengthened could provide a route toward independent mechanisms for holding officials to account.

Finally, elected officials need to embrace the possibility that the public’s shifting opinion is worth changing the status quo. In the last few weeks, I have seen city councilmembers roll their eyes at demands for abolition, question residents’ identities or credentials in making public demands, and generally act as if residents who have chosen this moment to get engaged are interlopers in a process that was running smoothly without them. This attitude is emblematic of a wider culture of comfort in the version of local government that has operated largely behind closed doors for decades. Elected public officials need to adapt to the present moment and accept that during their tenure there has been an accountability deficit in local governance that has led to a severe lack of public trust in government. For some, this lack of trust began with the 2016 election, for others who have been persecuted and punished by our system for generations, the trust gap runs much deeper. Local governments have not had the same vitriol and partisan debate that has turned people away from national politics, but they have seen consistently dropping rates of engagement in public meetings and local elections since at least the 1950s. Localities could be the best place to build trust between community members and the elected officials who serve them. Cities provide essential services that are closest to people and their daily lives. But elected officials seem to have forgotten that public participation is desirable, even when it conflicts with their gently laid out plans. Just as advocates and residents are responsible for speaking up when they see injustice, elected officials are responsible for adapting their actions and seeking accountability on behalf of the people. This is the only real representation.

Police departments lack accountability in all three of these areas. Needless to say, there is no possibility for civic participation in an institution that fundamentally exists to punish and not to protect the people. As in Oakland, citizen-led oversight boards and similar efforts have failed at responding to the murders of civilians by police officers in that they have failed to prevent them from happening again and again and again. Elected officials have demonstrated that they are more committed to the status quo than to responding to mass movements that demand structural solutions to structural problems. They are unwilling to give up political donations from police unions, or to divest themselves from backroom dealings that protect police officers who commit crimes. And they are perfectly willing to oversee a steady decline in social services that provide essential support to institutionally disenfranchised neighborhoods.

Police departments are beyond saving. They have already failed the accountability test. We must diminish the power of the police before we can even trust local governments to provide for our communities’ safety again. We must prioritize listening to those whose lives have been forever shaped by the presence of police in their neighborhoods and for whom trust in government was never even an option. We must first drastically diminish the footprint of policing in US cities. The only accountability left is to defund and abolish the police.

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