A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

Understanding Accountability: The Case of Police Brutality

Cynthia Kaufmann presents a theory of accountability with reference to police brutality

by Brandon AbsherNovember 17, 2020

This work is by Cynthia Kaufman, Director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers this summer led people across the US to be mobilized to challenge the systemic racism that is deeply embedded in every institution of our country. The police have tremendous power and yet, the systems of accountability to keep that power from being misused are incredibly weak. In my book, Challenging Power: Democracy and Accountability in a Fractured World, I explore the nature of accountability, and develop an analysis of the five pieces that need to be in place for an attempt at accountability to work. Accountability is a complex five parted process, and it only works when all five parts are strong, and when all are working in synergy.

The Five Elements of an Effective Accountability Mechanism

When we work to hold power to account, we give voice to pains, we conceptualize those pains as violating social values, we name actors who should be held responsible for those pains, we engage in work to sanction those responsible, and we work to add power to make those sanctions have impact.


For a system of accountability to work the problem needs to be brought to the attention of people who can do something about it. Many of us saw George Floyd being murdered before our eyes. Increased use of video from mobile phones has opened up new possibilities for accountability for police violence.


Part of holding the power of the police to account is in showing the killing to have been a moral wrong, and not an accident, an unfortunate side effect of a hard job, or something insignificant. The person killed must be seen as worthy of rights. The voicing of the problem needs to be put into a strong moral framework.


Another part of holding someone to account is finding who or what to hold responsible for an action. To have accountability, someone or something needs to be held responsible for the action in a way that prevents it from being repeated. Responsibility doesn’t only mean liable to legal sanction, rather it means able to make a difference. There isn’t one set of actions that can make a serious social problem go away. Deep systemic change requires many actions at many levels. A specific accountability mechanism is developed when we work on one strategic plan to achieve one pathway toward responsibility.


For there to be accountability, actions need to have consequences There needs to be a sanction on oppressive behavior, and that sanction needs to be significant. Just as the responsibility we are talking about here is not limited to legal liability, so a sanction is not only a punishment. Instead it is a consequence for an action that has the effect of changing a behavior. Budgets can be cut. Legitimacy can be lost. Officers can be fired. Rules, jail-time, and fines can be imposed.


In order to make sanctions stick, and be significant enough for there to be accountability, there needs to be enough force in the situation to mobilize the social resources needed to change behavior. This happens, for example, when city council members in Minneapolis have a veto proof majority that can defund the police. Action on the street helps increase their ability to act.

For an accountability mechanism to work, all five elements need to be present and they need to work in synergy. In this case, it makes sense to assign responsibility for the murder of George Floyd to the four officers who were on the scene, but perhaps more significantly, to hold the Minneapolis police force as a whole to account. The sanction being considered by the Minneapolis city council is to defund the department. That is a serious sanction. The movement on the streets has helped give the city council the strength of public support so that they don’t back down from the work.

Values and Dehumanization

One of the hardest things that the movement for police accountability has been up against is that Black lives are often not seen as mattering strongly enough by people who administer the criminal justice system. In this case, the values element of accountably mechanisms is the weakest link. If a killing is not a moral outrage, then there won’t be enough strength to apply sanctions to hold the police to account.

The movement to insist that Black lives matter is the most important aspect of the changes we are seeing. There is tremendous flexibility in how laws are enforced. Having the legal system ready to protect the rights of Black people involves a transformation of deep dehumanizing structures of meaning that have existed for centuries. The dehumanization at the root of this lack of rights is not an accident or a simple prejudice, instead, it is deeply rooted in the history of slavery. As historically rooted dehumanization is challenged at every level in society, it becomes much more likely that people will get fair trials and sentences, that juries will convict police officers, that people making budget decisions will decide to fund the things that lead to the possibilities of good lives.

Creating Accountability to End Police Murder

This is a moment where we can all work to make the power that is given to police forces more accountable, while we also work to take that power away. Dealing with police abuse, like dealing with any problem of power that causes social destruction, requires that we attend to the five aspects of accountability and to the ways those different parts of our struggles work together to make real, long term systemic change possible.