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Project April 27, 2021

Roadblocks to Police Accountability


Several roadblocks stand in the way of police accountability. Some are legal—qualified immunity; the willfulness requirement that makes it hard to convict police in brutality cases; court decisions giving police the benefit of the doubt. Other roadblocks are union-related, tying accountability in knots by blocking the release of names of wrongdoers and using arbitration to keep them on the street. Others are government muscle the government doesn’t flex. The Trump administration has decided to forgo the use of pattern or practice investigations that lead to enforceable consent decrees requiring police reforms. Those pattern or practice suits were authorized by Congress in response to the Rodney King beating.

Another potentially powerful method of accountability — police licensing — is disarmed by a hodgepodge of different state laws. The result is "wandering" police officers who abuse citizens in one jurisdiction and move on to another. Until recently, only 37 states reported names of decertified officers to a national database, and that database keeps them secret.

The goal of this project is to explain each of the roadblocks to police accountability in a digestible way that citizens can understand. The project is a blend of explanatory and investigative stories that we hope will interest public media outlets and criminal justice reformers. We’re pitching the stories to groups promoting criminal justice education and to public media nationally and in key markets (St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, and other Northeastern markets, Hawaii.)

A team of 15 college journalists is digging into cases where misconduct has been swept under the rug. The students have filed freedom of information requests in California, Hawaii, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The student reporters are diverse and drawn from universities around the country—Stanford, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Washington University, Hampton, Spelman, Baylor, Case Western. Some are TV or radio journalists, and others are newspaper or website journalists. They are collecting video, audio and still photos in addition to creating graphics.

A talented professional illustrator, Steve Edwards in St. Louis, is drawing the main logo and illustrations. Meanwhile, I’m building on a career of reporting on police accountability to explain the loopholes that aren’t well-understood: qualified immunity, willfulness, pattern or practice, decertification, arbitration, abolition, defunding, police bill of rights. I have legal experts to draw upon: David Harris at Pittsburgh, Sam Walker in Nebraska, Roger Goldman at Saint Louis University in addition to criminologists in St. Louis and Baltimore.