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COLUMN: The Trouble with Police Accountability

OPINION: Jessica Szilagyi opines on the idea that “police accountability” means different things to different people, which means it is difficult to define and even more difficult to enact.

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.

Pro Roof GA

I think there are a number of questions that we’ll never be able to pin down and answer and one of those is “What is police accountability?”

I am personally pro-law enforcement. There is no “I back the blue, but….” coming with that statement. I am pro-law enforcement and I am pro-police accountability.

But, what I have found over the last several years is that the idea of “police accountability” means different things to different people, which means it is difficult to define and even more difficult to enact.

I receive a number of “tips” and complaints from people who have what they believe are shoddy interactions with law enforcement and they want me to use my platform to hold them accountable. Ironically, only twice in my career have I published videos of law enforcement encounters and both of those times, the tips came from people within law enforcement.

[If you’re an avid reader, this may be confusing, but I consider the Brooklet series a single writing instance because it was a series within a single department and the same ‘bad actors’.]

As a writer, I am in unique position. This job has connected me with people in law enforcement in various corners of the state, people whose brains I wouldn’t have the opportunity to pick if I wasn’t in the profession that I am. The exposure has allowed me to ask them what they think, as a person “in the industry,” when a video goes viral or a story makes the news. Sometimes they will explain why something is justified and even help me better understand the circumstances and other times they will not only condemn what they saw, but encourage me to write about it. I trust their judgment immensely and when I’ve written about the police, I’ve had their support in my angle for accountability.

But that still doesn’t mean we have the same vision of “police accountability.”  It also doesn’t mean the media is always the correct avenue for accountability.

Some people expect that law enforcement officers be perfect all of the time. They believe that their every move should be recorded, that no mercy should be shown because they are public employees, and termination should follow any perceived abuse of power. A number of these “believers” spend their days looking for opportunities to point out wrongdoing and exceed the idea of a ‘watchdog.’

On the other end of the spectrum is the faction of the population that is willing to concede any and all power and excuse to the police in the name of “authority,” they believe that everyone the police deal with is a hardened criminal, and even mouthing off to someone in law enforcement should be an arrestable offense. These loyalists believe that because a person puts their life on the line that we should refrain from criticism.

Neither of these spectrum extremists, if you will, are productive or helpful. The world of social media has seemingly made both of these extremes sound the loudest by providing trials in the court of public opinion for all involved parties any time a police encounter hits the internet. Couple that with the emotional side of this debate, whether it is coming from people who have had negative interactions, the wrongly accused, or the family of someone in law enforcement, most discussions start at the trigger level of abortion, which is not conducive for civil discussion.

Per usual, where we belong is somewhere in the middle. I don’t automatically respect someone in law enforcement because they’re in a position of authority. I offer my respect because they’re another human being. It’s a great foundation for objectivity because I don’t view them as any different than the people with whom they’re interacting.

Obviously, I expect law enforcement officers to obey the law and avoid violating the rights of citizens. From there, police accountability is rooted in the expectation of professionalism, responsiveness, transparency, and how they use their discretion. “Would a…should a…reasonable person behave the same way under the same circumstances?”

We have come to a place, and rightfully so, where we expect law enforcement officers to handle themselves with a certain level of decorum and for that reason, I rarely find ‘rudeness’ acceptable. It shouldn’t matter if the person they’re dealing with is also rude, nor should it matter if that person has a criminal history. Respectfulness is paramount. But, does someone being rude mean they shouldn’t be in law enforcement? No, it’ just means they have a knack for escalating situations – something they’ll have to suffer the consequences of sooner or later, even without the accountability of the public. But even this is not a ‘standard’ as not everyone views rudeness the same.

Police accountability also places a heavy burden on not only the officer but the respective agency to understand and internalize why an interaction or incident may rub someone – or the public as whole – the wrong way. Will they listen? Do they respond? Social media and cell phone video have all but eliminated the idea of ‘handling things internally’ within an agency. Still, a level of responsiveness is necessary to affirm to the public that their concerns are heard. In some ways, this hasn’t fared well for ‘accountability,’ because not every public outrage warrants public action. In the quest for balance, sometimes the public grows more outraged by the inaction and other times, good officers are punished in the interest of ‘public perception’ when they’re undeserving of such punishment.

All of this because accountability means different things to different people – even amongst those who wear a badge.

Another facet of police accountability, and likely one of the most important components, is understanding that just because you want someone held accountable for their actions, doesn’t mean you hate the police. It quite literally means you just want someone to take responsibility for their actions. Accountability also leaves little room for excusing an action because it was a mistake.  Mistakes warrant accountability, too. But while we’re on the subject — ‘accountability’ isn’t a synonym for ‘termination.’

So, what can the public do to foster an environment of accountability? First and foremost, be honest. Don’t lie, don’t embellish, don’t sensationalize. If you record an interaction, record the whole thing, not just what is favorable to you. People will be willing to listen to why you’re upset about something that happened, even if the law or the policy isn’t on your side.  Second, don’t offer commentary about how something is wrong unless you’re prepared to answer how it should be done better – and why. Third, don’t make it personal. Principle and policy will always trump vendettas and insults. And finally, understand that accountability is a direct result of who we put in power.

We should have opinions on law enforcement behavior and we should offer them…when we have enough information to do so.

I am a strong advocate for praising people when things are on the up and up so that when it’s time to hold them accountable, your voice is one with credibility. I also believe it’s important to let law enforcement know that you’re rooting for them to do what is right, but you’re on standby to call them out when they mess up…just like we do with they other public professions.

Jessica Szilagyi is a former Statewide Contributor for

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Doug

    March 26, 2019 at 5:01 am

    First of all, authority without accountability leads to tyranny. All human interaction can be broken down to either voluntary or involuntary. Interaction with the government is the only involuntary interaction, because it is a monopoly on force in geographic area. Cops without accountability are a recipe for corruption and a danger to the people that pay their paychecks/pensions.

    I do not buy that because I’m not a cop, I can’t see when an officer does wrong. I need not be a doctor to understand that if I see a surgeon violently stabbing a patient with a scalpel, that said Dr. is wrong and should be held accountable. Again, in this example future interactions with said Dr. are voluntary–interactions with police are not.

    If we are to never fight back against police, if citizens are to be submissive, then yes, cops have to have accountability far beyond that of a citizen. I can shoot and kill another citizen if he threatens my life, but that defense does not exist with law enforcement even when they get trigger happy or beat someone near death in a rage. Right now, officers are allowed to get away with entirely way too much. We pay their paychecks and they are suppose to be civil servants and not a militant police state!

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