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Story Publication logo December 20, 2021

Legal Roadblocks to Police Accountability

Dozens of police officers cross a street.

Several roadblocks stand in the way of police accountability. Some are legal—qualified immunity; the...

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Multiple Authors

Image by Shutterstock.

The Gateway Journalism Review, along with the Pulitzer Center, published the Legal Roadblocks to Police Accountability. Click the link above to download the magazine.

The murder of George Floyd from a knee on the neck, together with the killing of Breonna Taylor in a botched no-knock raid, brought a national awakening to the problem of police misconduct and an uprising of protests meant to bring about change.

The Gateway Journalism Review, with the financial and editorial support of the Pulitzer Center, assembled a diverse team of about 20 student journalists, professional journalists, and law students to investigate the legal roadblocks to accountability: filing FOIA requests, pulling together police misconduct laws from all 50 states and D.C., and reporting on cases of misconduct across the country.

The professional journalists who helped included Paul Wagman and John G. Carlton, both former journalists from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who had written about police accountability in the past.

Legal experts added in their expertise, explaining the origins of legal roadblocks to accountability and how they might be reformed.

Among these are Wayne C. Beyer, who has been lead counsel in more than 300 police misconduct cases; David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor whose most recent book is A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontations; Trevor Gardner II, a Washington University law professor specializing in race and police confrontations; Roger Goldman, emeritus professor at Saint Louis University School of Law who has written and spoken extensively on licensing police; Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha and a leading expert on police accountability; and Emanuel Powell, an attorney for ArchCity Defenders in St. Louis.

Our conclusion is that police officers who abuse citizens usually escape punishment because of an array of legal doctrines that stack the law in an officer’s favor. That was true before the murder of George Floyd and it is true today.