The Fitful Journey Toward Police Accountability

After months of headlines about violent encounters between officers and citizens, some efforts to investigate and punish police are gaining traction.

Demonstrators march through the streets of McKinney, Texas, on Monday. (Mike Stone / Reuters)

For almost a year, the nation has been focused on cases of violence against citizens by police—most of them involving black victims, and many of them involving white officers. A complaint that advocates have raised again and again is that there’s too little accountability for officers: They’re seldom prosecuted or punished when people die, and when they are prosecuted, they usually aren’t convicted.

That makes this an interesting moment, because across the nation this week, steps are being taken to hold officers accountable—whether through official reviews, the legal process, or citizen action. Here are a few of the stories swirling on Wednesday:

  • McKinney: In McKinney, Texas, Corporal Eric Casebolt resigned Tuesday afternoon. Casebolt was the officer captured on camera pulling a gun and tackling a black teenage girl at a pool party in the Dallas suburb. While Casebolt’s resignation—a two-word statement, “I resign,” with no apology—was described as voluntary, Police Chief Greg Conley also made clear that he did not approve of Casebolt’s actions, calling them “indefensible.” Casebolt’s attorney, Jane Bishkin, is expected to hold a press conference on Wednesday, though the timing is not yet clear. (A call to her office has not yet been returned.) Bishkin is experienced at handling cases involving police, and has represented unions and individuals.
  • Cleveland: Community leaders are awaiting a decision from a judge on a criminal complaint they filed in Cleveland Municipal Court, seeking arrests for the two officers involved in the November shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. As I explained Tuesday, that comes under a little-known and less-used Ohio law that allows citizens to request an arrest warrant from a court. Michael Benza, an instructor at Case Western Reserve Law School, believed that a warrant was likely and could come quickly.
  • Los Angeles: An investigation found fault with two officers involved in the August death of Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old, mentally ill black man shot at his home while he was unarmed. A civilian oversight commission “found that both officers acted improperly when they drew their guns, and that one officer also acted improperly in both approaching Mr. Ford and using his gun.” The case now goes to Police Chief Charlie Beck to decide whether to take any action against the officers. Ford’s mother welcomed the commission’s decision but was dubious that Beck—who had previously cleared the officers—would take serious action. She also called for prosecution of the officers.
  • New York: The FBI announced arrests of two New York City corrections officers in connection with the 2012 death of a Rikers Island inmate. Ronald Spear, 52, was restrained when officers attacked him, with one reportedly repeatedly kicking him in the head. The two guards were charged with conspiracy, filing a false report, and lying to a grand jury. The city agreed to pay $2.75 million to settle a suit over his death last year.

Meanwhile, a different sort of vision of accountability: Following up on a project launched by The Guardian that seeks to record every police-involved fatality—a response to the fact that no government authority keeps reliable statisticsThe Intercept’s Josh Begley has created a collection of Google Maps images of the locations of fatal encounters. It’s an unsettling journey through haunted corners of the American landscape.