Why is Accountability Important?

Accountability: “The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.”In his December 8, 2016, online Forbes article “Why Accountability Is Critical For Achieving Winning Results,” Brent Gleeson writes “…accountability is probably the single most important element fueling truly successful organizations.” While Mr. Gleeson is referring to accountability in terms of the private sector, his observation is particularly applicable to law enforcement.Police departments operate in a highly discretionary, minimally supervised, procedure and protocol dependent environment. Discretionary decisions, to act or not to act, can have tremendous impact on citizens, the officer, the community and the department.  Discretionary decisions are made on a daily basis, they generally attract very little attention and usually are based on good intentions and have good results; however, the misuse of discretion does occur and has terrible consequences. While the high profile arrest of a dangerous felon may be the headline of the day, a discretionary enforcement action that gives the appearance of bias can linger in the media for months, destroying reputations and careers in the process.  Routine and mundane internal review processes and protocols can be so cumbersome and appear so insignificant that they “fall through the cracks”. Generally, those failings attract little departmental attention and seem to have little impact, until the day they are vital in the defense of a departmental action, are the critical link that would have provided an early indication of misconduct, policy failure or personal crisis, or are needed to demonstrate the department’s attentiveness to issues of public concern  When the misapplication of discretion, misconduct, or incidents of high public interest occur we often discover a history, both individually and organizationally, of overlooked indicators, that if recognized and acted upon, may have prevented or mitigated the impact of the conduct or incident. Police agencies are often characterized as intentionally ignoring or refusing to see the value of establishing accountability systems that could identify and possibly prevent misconduct, policy failure and threats to officer wellness; however, the more accurate reason for the lack of accountability is the overwhelming nature of law enforcement. All too often the demands of the day take precedence over less immediate issues and the volume of available information makes recognition and analysis very difficult. Agency size and workload make little difference; the smaller the agency the more tasks the chief and command staff are responsible for, in large agencies the volume of information and limited interaction between senior staff and operational personnel complicate the lines of communication. In each case, for different reasons, things “fall through the cracks” and accountability suffers.When an organization consistently pays attention to discretionary decisions and the procedure and protocol review process, those decisions and reviews are more in line with department values and policies.  Transparency and public confidence increase when the department can clearly demonstrate that conduct is monitored and reviewed. The challenge for the law enforcement executive is how, within the many and varied demands of their position, to establish a workable process that creates a culture of accountability.

How To Assess Accountability in your organization

A Comprehensive Review Of All Policies Should Be Conducted With The Following In Mind:

  • Do the policies clearly define expectations and requirements both operationally and in terms of the internal review process?
  • Are policies relevant, necessary and current?  Unenforced, unnecessary policies or those that are outdated, detract from the value of needed and vital policy.
  • Do policies reflect the mission, values and vision of the department? Policy should, in all cases, be consistent with the desired culture of the department.

For Internal Review Processes Consider The Following:

  • Is the process needed and relevant?  Unnecessary work detracts from the importance of vital reviews.
  • Is the review process workflow clearly defined and are the expectations for each level of review explicitly delineated?
  • Is there a standardized format (form) that guides the review?  If not, consider the development a standardized format.
  • Are time limits or time parameters established by policy and enforced?  The required timely completion of a review process emphasizes its importance, reduces the chance of a repeat of policy/performance failure and reinforces proper conduct.

Audit The Discretionary Decisions Made by Department Personnel:

  • What are most frequently occurring discretionary situations/decisions officers face/make?
  • Are the decisions made consistent with the policies, mission, vision and values of the department?
  • Have those decisions resulted in citizen complaints and/or civil actions?
  • Is there a shift, unit, day of week/hour of day, or supervisory correlation between discretionary decisions and complaints or civil actions?
  • Does department training address those situations where officers are required to make discretionary decisions?

Consider the availability and use of technological solutions designed to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the internal review process and the identification and analysis of discretionary activity and decisions.

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