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Professor Kami Chavis Simmons uses her experience as a prosecutor to promote police accountability

Kami Chavis Simmons

Jurors recently convicted five police officers accused of civil rights violations and obstruction of justice following a shooting of six people in New Orleans.  Federal prosecutors alleged that the defendant police officers shot at two families as they crossed the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans while fleeing Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. Two victims, one of which sustained gunshot wounds to the back of the head, died, and four others were critically wounded.  Prosecutors claimed that after the shooting, the police engaged in an elaborate effort to conceal the fact that the victims were unarmed and to give the appearance that the officers’ actions were justified. 

Wake Forest University Law Professor Kami Chavis Simmons, an expert in police accountability, says the New Orleans Police Department has long struggled with allegations of police misconduct and corruption. According to Simmons, the Danziger Bridge incident exemplifies the organizational nature of misconduct.

 Simmons notes, “Perhaps what is most disturbing about the incident is that the supervising officers who were assigned to investigate the shooting became part of the ensuing cover-up.  So while the officers directly involved in the shooting may bear some culpability, the entire police department is accountable.” 

Simmons acknowledges that “the overwhelming majority of police officers are professionals who risk their lives to keep the rest of society safe. Unfortunately, police misconduct and corruption persists in the United States.  Many shortcomings stem from a lack of accountability within police agencies and an organizational culture that cultivates and tolerates misconduct. The guilty verdicts in this case should prompt us to take a closer look at the reforms needed in police departments around the nation.”

In her writing, Simmons identifies several practices that impact institutional culture within police agencies.  For example, she notes that many police agencies fail to track “problem” officers so that supervisors can properly identify them, lack a fair and comprehensive complaint process, and do not have adequate procedures in place to investigate uses of force.  Simmons notes, “Implementing an early warning tracking system would help supervisors identify those officers that might need to be retrained, reassigned or released.  Similarly, improving or implementing other reforms ensures transparency and accountability.” 

Simmons is acutely aware of how police misconduct impacts communities.  “The number of individual officers who engage in misconduct is quite small,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of police officers perform reasonably in the face of incredible danger. Much of my work focuses on the 1 percent of officers who do not.  It is this small number of officers that cause community members to lose trust and question the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Many jurisdictions have had great success with community policing programs, but it can be difficult for communities to partner with police if residents do not trust them.”

Simmons’ scholarship uses democratic theory to demonstrate the importance of stakeholder participation in reforming police agencies.  Simmons’ work also explores federalism issues and how these issues impact local police practices. Her first publication, “The Politics of Policing: Ensuring Stakeholder Participation in the Federal Reform of Local Police Practices,” appeared in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. In 2010, the Catholic University Law Review published her article entitled New Governance and the “New Paradigm” of Police Accountability: A Democratic Approach to Police Reform.   Simmons recently published an article entitled “Cooperative Federalism and Police Reform: Using Congressional Spending Power to Promote Police Accountability,” which appeared in the Winter 2011 volume of the University of Alabama Law Review.

This past spring, Simmons spoke at a symposium at Washington and Lee University School of Law on racial profiling. She notes, “Racial profiling is an important subset of police accountability.  Many states now mandate collection of data during traffic stops that includes recording the race of the driver and whether officers have asked that person to consent to a search of their vehicle.  Many scholars are anxious to analyze this data and determine to what extent police officers disproportionately stop and search racial minorities.”

Before she began teaching at Wake Forest five years ago, Simmons was an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, involving her in a wide range of criminal prosecutions and in arguing and briefing appeals before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

“I like teaching at Wake Forest because of the intellectual curiosity of the students and I like having the chance to shape future lawyers,” she says. “It’s hard for me to hide my excitement when students want to do criminal defense and prosecution.” 

Simmons continues, “Many students ask me about my previous experience as an AUSA and seek advice about becoming a prosecutor.   I always tell them that one of the most important qualities in a prosecutor is integrity. As a prosecutor, I was reminded daily of the importance of protecting our Constitutional rights, and the importance of protecting these rights continues to inform my scholarship related to improving police practices.”

Incidents like the Danziger Bridge shooting and the ensuing cover-up undermine public confidence in law-enforcement agencies, according to Simmons. 

“This lack of legitimacy has negative consequences for both police and the communities they serve because community members are less likely to partner with police to solve crime,” she says.  “Prosecutors and those investigating police wrongdoing will not always have the testimony or cooperation of other police officers to uncover wrongdoing.  Thus, efforts to eradicate police misconduct and corruption will be ineffective unless reforms address the culture of the police organization itself. No community should endure another incident like the Danziger Bridge shooting.”