This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
The latest viral videos of police brutality – this time at a high school in South Carolina – illustrate the steady increase in public accountability over recent decades for actions that would otherwise have gone under the radar.
Last week, three quick-minded students in a small classroom at Spring Valley High had their phones out and recording in anticipation of violent behaviour by a police officer called in to deal with a recalcitrant student. It worked. Within two days of the videos going public, Richland County Sheriff’s Office deputy Ben Fields lost his job.
Video technology has created accountability where there had been none before. The seminal moment in the history of this trend was the 1992 beating of motorist Rodney King, which George Holliday videotaped from his apartment in Lake View Terrace, Los Angeles.
As video became cheaper and more mobile, minorities came to see the camcorder as a slim hope of protection against police harassment. As rapper Ice Cube put it:
Tearin up my coupe lookin for the chronic
Goddamn nobody got a Panasonic?!
Well, today everyone has one in their pocket and the effects are profound.
There are now wholes genres of citizen-shot cell-phone videos, evidencing a range of bad actions that would otherwise have gone to ground. These include:
- the police shooting;
- the racist rant on public transport; and
- the over-the-top road rage incident.
These videos expose people in ways that can be later used for anything from shaming the offenders to mounting legal action and instigating political movements.
These examples illustrate a key ingredient of accountability: access. If we are to have any chance of holding someone to account for their actions, we need access to knowledge of those actions in the first place. The videos are showing us what is actually happening.
We have the knowledge, but what about outcomes?
But if exposure through surveillance (or “sousveillance”) appears to promise accountability, that promise is not always delivered. Take the phenomenon of the hit-to-kill driver in China, described recently by Geoffrey Sant:
In China, drivers who have injured pedestrians will sometimes then try to kill them. And yet not only is it true, it’s fairly common; security cameras have regularly captured drivers driving back and forth on top of victims to make sure that they are dead.
Why make sure that they are dead? These drivers’ rationale is that the payout for accidentally killing someone is a one-off, while supporting a seriously injured person could go on for life.
Video recordings may expose this but often it hasn’t made a difference. Many of the hit-to-kill cases in China do not result in convictions, but are declared accidents, or cases of negligence, despite suggestive if not compelling video evidence to the contrary.
Here is the second ingredient of accountability: the need for outcomes. There has to be a system of the kind that can create and enforce an appropriate outcome based on the evidence – whether that be punishment for a transgression, or revision of how things are done – to ensure that the problem doesn’t occur again.
Without a system that can pursue and effect outcomes, the mere exposure of outrageous actions is no guarantee that anyone will be held to account for them.
But what are the right outcomes in any given case?
Proper accounting requires principled evaluation
Here is a third ingredient of accountability. Outcomes cannot be determined without a method of evaluation. Actions cannot be judged out of context, nor can they be assessed without knowledge of the reasons behind them, and the rights and duties of those involved.
When a sniper uses a bullet to end a person’s life, this act will be evaluated in very different ways depending on the rights and duties of the shooter. If he is a soldier doing the job he is paid for, the evaluation will be positive. The outcome might be official praise. But if he is off duty and is settling a personal score, then this will be bad. The shooter may be jailed for life or even executed.
This all suggests that accountability lies on shifting sands. We may have access to others’ actions and yet we often lack the full story – as defenders Fields’ behaviour might suggest.
Also, who has the right to demand access and who has the duty to provide it? We may want to evaluate those actions, but what frame of reference are we to use? And we may want to pursue outcomes, but by what authority will they be effected?
Accountability is not just about our duty to reveal our actions (or our right to conceal them), but also about our right to defend those actions by giving reasons for, and background to, what we have done. This is the essence of the “accounting” that gives accountability its name.
To understand accountability, we need to acknowledge that it has distinct ingredients, none of which guarantees the others. Increased access to people’s actions is a start, but to achieve the right outcomes, there have to be principled means of evaluation.
They have to be at least principled because they cannot be objective. When can we demand that others’ actions be revealed and when can we refuse to reveal our own? How are our actions to be evaluated? What should be the outcomes?
These questions can only be answered relative to specific frames of reference. This is why accountability is always a political matter.
Join the conversation about accountability at two events in Sydney on Thursday, November 5:
9am-5pm Power and Accountability symposium;
6pm-8pm Accountability: why do we need it and how do we get it? panel discussion – Sydney Ideas.