Police Shootings: Is Accountability the Enemy of Prevention?

80 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2019 Last revised: 14 Mar 2020

Date Written: April 1, 2019


Police officers shoot an unarmed man or woman. The victim’s family and community cry out for someone to be held accountable. In minority communities, where a disproportionate number of officer-involved shootings occur, residents suspect that racial animus and stereotypical assumptions about “dangerous black men” played a part. Citizens seek accountability by filing lawsuits and demanding criminal prosecutions. They are usually disappointed: The majority of police-involved shootings are deemed “justified” by police investigators and courts, and no criminal charges are brought. If so, this is the end of the inquiry under current legal standards and there is no accountability. There is also no legal reason to ask why the shooting occurred and how it could have been prevented. This article argues that the current accountability paradigm is hindering genuine progress in decreasing the number of police-involved shootings, including those motivated by racism. We need to look beyond the limited time-frame embraced by the current legal standard and view police-involved shootings as organizational accidents. Borrowing lessons learned from the aviation and healthcare fields, this article urges a prevention-first approach that applies systemic analysis to what are systems problems. In these sectors, investigations of tragic accidents employ Sentinel Event Review, a systems-oriented strategy that looks back to identify all the factors that contributed to the event and looks forward to identify systemic reforms that could mitigate the chance of recurrence. The goal is to create systemic barriers that make it more difficult for sharp-end actors to err or misbehave. I am not arguing that individual police officers should escape responsibility for their actions. But our cur-rent relentless focus on accountability – while an understandable human reaction – has become the enemy of prevention in the very communities that need it most.

Keywords: police-involved shooting, policing, excessive force, Sentinel Event Review, root cause analysis, justified shooting, racially motivated shooting, accountability, prevention

Suggested Citation

Armacost, Barbara E., Police Shootings: Is Accountability the Enemy of Prevention? (April 1, 2019). Ohio State Law Journal Volume 80, Number 5, 2019, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2019-16, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3363909

Barbara E. Armacost (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
804-924-3413 (Phone)
804-924-7536 (Fax)

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