The 21st Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology
We are excited to be sharing our plans and some of the context for our project at the 21st Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology (8 to 10 September 2021 – online). Our panel “Police Accountability – Towards International Standards” took place at 4pm on 9th September in room 8.
External and independent police accountability has become a major topic in many countries over the past decades. A broad variety of schemes and models can be observed. This panel builds upon the international and transdisciplinary research project Police Accountability – Towards International Standards (2021-2024) which investigates external police oversight in a number of countries, in which research teams from Canada, France, Germany, the UK, and Japan are involved. The project maps external oversight bodies and analyzes expectations from within the police, administration and civil society. The project aims to identify measures of effectiveness and develop international standards for good police accountability practice at national levels and for transnational policing. In light of persistent public concerns in many democratic countries about effective police accountability – particularly in cases of death or serious injury to members of the public – there is a need to improve the empirical basis for comparison of police accountability mechanisms.
Paper 1: Comparing police accountability bodies internationally: theoretical approaches and methodological challenges
Hartmut Aden, Sonja John, and Alexander Bosch
Police agencies have been granted additional powers and resources with which to cope with burgeoning threats. At the same time, police technology has rapidly developed. Additional powers, technologies, and transnational police networks add to the already far-reaching powers that police agencies possess. Effective accountability, notably through independent oversight of the police, has often failed to keep pace with these expanding powers. This paper discusses theoretical approaches and methodological challenges for the international and transdisciplinary study of police accountability schemes and mechanisms.
Paper 2: Police Accountability: From an internal to an external control system?
Some countries, like England, Scotland or Canada, have built a system in which external actors can play a role in the control of police actions, in other countries, like France or Germany, police forces, and their government, are mostly not ready to open their doors to non-police officers. It is interesting to compare these two country groups, because of their divergent political systems. In France, police forces are mainly acting in a centralized organization, at national scale, whereas in Germany, they are distributed amongst the 16 State (Länder) ministries of the interior. In terms of policing, the French police are known to be more repressive than their German colleagues. However, the two countries seem to be equally reluctant to involve external bodies in the control of police forces. In France, internal bodies, with little openness to the media, still control the investigations when a police officer is suspected of personal injury. If the courts are for some reason part of the process, they depend upon services linked to the administrative authority of the police. The independent bodies created in order to have a more autonomous way of controlling the police often lack power. We will examine the consequences of such a lack of transparency that characterises police accountability in France (and in Germany) on civil society.
Paper 3: Police Complaints Beyond External Participation
What are the dynamics generating reform of police complaints procedures? This problem has become increasingly urgent as civilian participation or oversight of the handling of complaints against the police has become a vibrant field for academic studies. Currently, research is concentrated on jurisdictions who have, or are in the process towards introducing, some form of external participation or oversight in the handling of complaints. Yet, the vast majority of police organisations, even in mature Western democracies, are still not being subjected to any external involvement in complaints handling. Moreover, we currently have no framework for distinguishing complaints handling outside external involvement in democratic countries from the treatment of citizens’ complaints in regimes with questionable or no democratic credentials.
Given that police, even in democratic regimes, have proved extremely resistant to public calls for greater accountability and transparency, we need to identify the key factors that allow a police system to continue treating complaints as an internal matter. The history of reform of complaints procedures shows great discrepancies between different Western democratic countries when it comes to the capacity for public outrage to pressure police management and governments take action after revelations of particularly egregious incidents of police misconduct to discipline, allow criminal prosecution, or engage in reform of complaints procedures.
This paper compares complaints handling in England/Wales and France from the mid-19th to the 21st century, identifying key factors that generated reform, or failed to. This helps discerning ‘reformable’ systems from system particularly resistant to reform. The paper argues that key factors making complaints systems ‘reformable’ include: the conceptualisation of police legitimacy; the legal framework around policing; the strength or fragility of the political regime; and the character of the public sphere