It is no secret that law enforcement officers get sued. Most of the time this is for ridiculous reasons; I think we can all agree. This “sue happy” era we’re in is not going to change any time soon. So, we have to have an answer to this in some way. But, this can’t be sole, main focus when trying to provide our citizens with the best possible service. If we become obsessed with it, things start to crumble, because anyone will try to sue us for anything. A constant liability mind set does several things, to include creating deadly hesitation and proves to be a breeding ground for poor decision making. I don’t know where the whole “reasonable” part of our job went.
If we (as officers) or administrators truly believe we’re right and reasonable during that split second decision time frame that someone else forced us to make, we’re fine. Of course, we have to articulate why we came to those conclusions in our report writing, interviews etc. But, the fact is that if you don’t do something absolutely stupid, you should be fine when the “liability” train comes around the corner. That being said, it is something that needs to be addressed, as it is an important topic. Be familiar with the liabilities surrounding your job, not scared of them. People in general make uneducated decisions when they’re not familiar with a topic, this is no different. People that have anxiety about this topic get scared of it and end up making costly decisions.
Administrators (Supervisors) – If you feel you need to constantly remind your officers that you are worried about getting sued as a department, get new employees. If you find yourself “preaching” about liability all the time, I’m talking to you! This is telling them that you have a lack of confidence in them and they will fail under you. It reinforces the fact that you don’t trust them. Scared, uncomfortable people do stupid things. Shoving the word “liability” down their throat every minute they turn around will make them scared, uncomfortable and ultimately, stupid. Stop making decisions that are derived from the mindset of “Not getting sued.” Start making decisions that are derived from the mindset “When we do get sued, I want to be able to look back and say that I did what I could for my officers. I gave them the tools to perform under these circumstances and they were ready.” Provide your officers with realistic and adequate training so you feel more comfortable with their decision making skills. Here’s a thought: Actually go to some of these trainings to see what they’re learning. You can’t have confidence if you don’t know what’s going on. If you have a tactical unit, go to their routine training to see what they’re working on. Thus, when the media comes knocking on your door, you can have confidence in your team’s decisions from the get-go. Give them an opportunity to be victorious, because you, as reasonable people, know that they’re in an uphill battle as law enforcement officers the way it is. Don’t’ make them fight you too. I never understood that most administrators that are worried about getting sued are the exact same administrators that keep their officers from attending trainings. Trainings that are geared towards what they’re worried about in the first place. Your officers need to know that if they’ve made reasonable and necessary decisions, you will back them up on it. This doesn’t mean during training you just say, “Hey, good job.” This means, “Keep doing a good job, I’ll support you and back you up.” It seems dumb, but this is the most important role you will have as an administrator. If you don’t, here comes the stupid… If they hesitate or aren’t comfortable in a situation, because they’re scared that you won’t back them, you’ve stooped to the bottom of the barrel as far as I’m concerned. A scared team of officers is extremely dangerous (in a bad way) when they’re not confident. Please give them confidence through training and words of support.
What’s that? Budgets…? Let me put it to you this way. If you don’t train your officers in realistic use of force situations, the lawsuit that you’re GOING to lose will far outweigh how much that training was going to cost. It is simple. State mandated training requirements alone are not enough, bottom line.
Let’s review: Know your officers. If you are not comfortable with them making life altering decisions, get rid of them. Support your officers and let them know that you support them. Encourage better training for them to help with making the correct decisions. Do not do the minimum requirements set forth in by the State alone.
Individual Officers – If you are scared to do your job as a law enforcement officer, because you’re scared of being sued, get out. You’re going to hurt or kill yourself and/or someone else. You, like the administrators, need to know that you likely will be sued in your career, or at least have that mentality. What you should be worried about, is that you haven’t prepared yourself to handle a situation and you’ll ultimately lose the lawsuit. You need to know your use of force code and be reasonable and necessary in your actions. That’s it. If the department is not providing you with the adequate training you think you need, do it yourself. Study your code books, read case law and for Heaven’s sake, get in to shape. Ask yourself this: “How am I going to feel if I have to shoot someone, because I was out of breath after 20 seconds of running and fighting with a guy. I just couldn’t go on and if I didn’t do it, I would have died.” Although this may be a justified shooting, your conscience will be freaking out at you and telling you that you could have saved this person’s life if you were in better shape. You will likely win the lawsuit, but living with the fact that you let yourself go and may or may not have been able to control the situation better if you were in shape, will haunt you. You’re in a job that requires you to do extra things that you most likely won’t be paid for. Get over it. You need to get yourself to the point where you’re comfortable doing your job.
Let’s review: Know your use of force codes and policies. Study on your own. Get in shape. Be reasonable in your actions.
Please stay safe! The citizens we’re sworn to protect, your colleagues, and your families count on you.
Written and Submitted by Mitchell G. Seitz
Mitchell is a state certified firearms and defensive tactics instructor. Trained and competed in mixed martial arts venues. Member of a multi-jurisdictional Emergency Response Team along with being a patrol officer.