Accountability in Policing: Is Punishment Serving the Public Interest?



On Thursday, March 7th, the Uvalde, Texas city council finally reported the findings of an independent investigation into the conduct of police who responded to the notorious elementary school shooting from 2022. The independent investigator recommended every officer – to the shock and outrage of victims’ families – be exonerated. With a penchant for passivity familiar to coverage of police wrongdoing, investigator Jesse Prado identified multiple failures but nobody to attribute them to. Parents of slain children, voices thick with emotion, called for accountability – paralleling the calls of those surviving victims of direct police violence.

We are in a moment of great reckoning with police. Though there is disagreement on what policy to adopt regarding the institution – abolition or reform – there is wide agreement identifying the problem with it: police are virtually unaccountable. Malcontent at this fact has spurred protests, social media campaigns, and legislation aimed at punishing officer misconduct more frequently and severely. Despite these pressures, the most dire of misconduct – police killing – has only continued to rise. Thus the question is raised: does punishment serve the same ends as accountability? Is it effective in preventing further violence at the acts or omissions of police? And – most importantly – do we even care about efficacy?

In 2018, Judge Aquilina expressed her desire to subject child-predator Larry Nassar to sexual violence, and she executed her judgment to subject him to an “unsurvivable prison sentence,” verbalizing the persistent notion that a victim’s dignity can be affirmed by stripping the dignity from their victimizer. The classical liberalism that serves as a foundation to our society conceives of humanity as a privilege – a status granted by having one’s rights protected and abrogated when those rights are violated. However, that politic also typically conceives of affirmative protection as beyond the role of the state, leaving scant but policing and punishment as the methods of protecting rights.

Under this philosophy, then, when someone nullifies a person’s humanity by violating their rights, the state is limited to symbolically restore humanity through punishment. Thus, the presumed deterrent effect of police and punishment justifies retribution, and the substantive cruelty of the punishment defines what retributes. Police misconduct is especially degrading to its victims, as it not only subjects them to the indignity of violence but does so by an official instrument of the state. Where policing is the alleged tool for reaffirming dignity, its misuse both generates an insult and fails to address the same. Thus, police misconduct is arguably the most deserving of swift and severe punishment. But this balancing of the scale only serves to desecrate another person, not to dignify anyone.

If accountability is about correcting an indignity, punitive justice indeed seems more responsive than the alternatives. Restorative or transformative justice appear to dismiss harm: restorative justice centers the humanity of the offender and urges victims to forgive; transformative justice shifts some blame to larger systems. Though punitive justice fails to deter, restorative and transformative justices fail to symbolically restore liberal humanity to victims. We are left to balance the public’s interest in “accountability” against its interest in deterrence.

To escape the dichotomy, one must presume the inalienability of humanity. If humanity cannot be stripped through cruelty, then it need not be “restored” to a victim and cannot be redistributed from an offender via punishment. Without the framework of a zero-sum-game between the dignity of victim and offender, we can return focus to actual accountability: the active process of taking responsibility and trying to make things right. Restorative justice does not restore a transferable humanity, but rather a victim’s feeling of safety and fairness as well as the offender’s bonds within their community. Transformative justice does not shift blame but acknowledges the multitude of sites where it lies. It does not excuse harm; it seeks explanation, that systems are changed to affirmatively protect the rights of potential future victims. Both center the victim, acknowledging their dignity where it has been ignored by the offender.

While swift and severe punishment of the Uvalde officers may not produce the accountability parents are looking for, neither would Prado’s effortless exonerations. To hold that punishing officers for their misconduct does not address the injustice of it is not to hold that they should continue to permit and commit violence with impunity. Prado’s investigation delayed determining the officers’ responsibility for almost two years, just to deny responsibility in the end. The officers never had to face the surviving parents, were never made to reckon with the pain their inaction caused, and never had to apologize. Prado’s report does not even articulate a clear cause for the miscommunication, on which he blames the disastrous police response; the police department is left without information on how to prevent this from reoccurring, and the public is left to assume that nothing will be corrected. These are the outcomes that must change for police to be held accountable for their misconduct.


Suggested Citation: Alecia Robins, Accountability in Policing: Is Punishment Serving the Public Interest?, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (April 16, 2024),


Alecia Robins is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. She received her Psychology degree from Hofstra University in 2021, and currently serves in a leadership role for the Cornell chapters of the Black Law Students Association, Outlaw, IF/WHEN/HOW, and Law and Political Economy.