Enhancing Accountability

The major difference between policing in a democracy and policing under non-democratic regimes is public accountability. In a non-democratic regime the police are solely accountable to the ruler, the state, the party or interest group in power or those in control of the government. Police in a democracy are accountable to a multiplicity of bodies: their superiors, the police administration, their peer officers; elected councils and legislatures, the courts, citizens of their community, and indeed all of society. They are not accountable to only one structure, e.g. their superiors or a civilian review board (Stone and Merrick). This view of the police promotes flexibility, growth and development in an environment where there are multiple guarantors of compliance with community standards and practices.

The Commission of Policing Structures of the United Nations International Police Task Force (1996) has developed a set of principles that act as a guide for training new police officers in countries ravaged by war and civil conflict (Stone and Ward). These principles are fundamental and applicable to democratic policing. They include:

  • Police need to protect rather than impede freedoms in a democratic society and provide a safe and orderly environment where these freedoms can be exercised;
  • Police are not to be concerned with people’s beliefs, movements or compliance with government policies and regulations unless laws are being broken;
  • Police are concerned primarily with the preservation of safe communities and the protection of life;
  • Police are governed by a code of conduct that compels them to apply the criminal law equally to all people, and conduct their activities with respect for human dignity and basic rights of all persons; and
  • Police are accountable to the public and all structures established for this purpose.

Selected Initiatives

In addition to improved collaboration between external and internal oversight and enhanced accountability, other measures can lead to the enhancement of civil governance:

  • Case processing Several preliminary studies suggest that an elaborate, highly structured and legalistic complaints process may be just as damaging to the complainant as the initial cause of the complaint. Systems established to receive complaints need to be simple, accessible, stream-lined, non-bureaucratic, compassionate and as ethically and socially sensitive as humanly possible. A more elaborate and structured approach can be preserved for a small minority of exceptional cases. Complaints need to be resolved quickly and informally, if possible. The use of mediation and dispute resolution techniques, alternative measures, and restorative justice approaches need further exploration (McLaughlin and Johansen). Complainants deserve simple, practical and full explanations of what happened and resulted in their complaint.
  • Prevention of misconduct
    While reports of police misconduct have not been eliminated (and likely never will be), many steps have been taken by police forces during the last thirty years in attempting to reduce the use of excessive force. Most studies addressing this issue suggest that a relatively small number of officers generate the majority of complaints (Terrill and McCluskey 143). Studies of police forces suggest relatively inexperience officers who are unable to handle the demands of their work are more prone to using force inappropriately. An "early warning system" for more vulnerable officers needs to be considered.