Accountability can be understood as answerability – as having the obligation to answer questions regarding one’s decisions and actions. We need to consider “who do the police answer to?” and “who is the police loyal to”? It is common to distinguish between two types of accountability – upwards accountability and downwards accountability:
Across sectors, it has proven generally easier for organizations and institutions to demonstrate upwards accountability rather than downward accountability. Police accountability towards the public is indeed key for building trust and ensuring reciprocal partnerships and is thus critical for a meaningful COP practice.
Police accountability has achieved much attention in relation to the global police demonstrations in 2020. In the media, the focus of discussions has been on the accountability of police conduct, although accountability includes many more aspects of policing. As illustrated in the figure below, the police must account for its actions and effects towards a variety of actors and with respect to a diversity of objectives.
Source: Adapted from Christopher E. Stone and Heather Ward, “Democratic policing a framework for action”, in Vera Institute of Justice and The Ford Foundation, Workshop on Police in Democratic Societies; Advancing Public Safety and Accountability”, 1998, downloaded from https://www.vera.org/publications/workshop-on-police-in-democratic-societies-advancing-public-safety-and-accountability , August 8, 2020.
While all these actors put a lot of pressure on officers, authoritarian states institutions may suppress civil society actors that are trying to make police accountable, and further undermining downward accountability.