The Duty of Responsible Administration and the Problem of Police Accountability

56 Pages Posted: 9 Oct 2014 Last revised: 14 Aug 2015

See all articles by Charles Sabel

Charles Sabel

Columbia University - Columbia Law School

William H. Simon

Columbia University - Law School; Stanford University - Stanford Law School

Date Written: August 2015


Many contemporary civil rights claims arise from institutional activity that, while troubling, is neither malicious nor egregiously reckless. When law-makers find themselves unable to produce substantive rules for such activity, they often turn to regulating the actors’ exercise of discretion. The consequence is an emerging duty of responsible administration that requires managers to actively assess the effects of their conduct on civil rights values and to make reasonable efforts to mitigate harm to protected groups. This doctrinal evolution partially but imperfectly converges with an increasing emphasis in public administration on the need to reassess routines in the light of changing circumstances. We illustrate the doctrinal and administrative changes with a study of policing. We discuss court-supervised reforms in New York and Cincinnati as examples of contrasting trajectories that these developments can take. Both initiatives are better understood in terms of an implicit duty of responsible administration than as an expression of any particular substantive right. However, the Cincinnati intervention reaches more deeply into core administrative practices and indeed mandates a particular crime control strategy – Problem-Oriented Policing. As such, it typifies a more ambitious type of structural civil-rights intervention that parallels comprehensive civil-rights initiatives in other areas.

Keywords: civil rights, criminal justice, administrative law, constitutional law, police, policing, police accountability

Suggested Citation

Sabel, Charles Frederick and Simon, William H., The Duty of Responsible Administration and the Problem of Police Accountability (August 2015). Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-420 , Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 2507280, Available at SSRN:

Charles Frederick Sabel

Columbia University - Columbia Law School ( email )

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William H. Simon (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

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Stanford University - Stanford Law School ( email )

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