How Can Civil Lawsuits Force Changes In Community Policing?

5 January 2015
 Categories: , Blog


In the wake of unrest over widely publicized police shootings, many citizens are worried that problems concerning community policing in our cities will continue. When police shootings are brought before a grand jury to determine if there is sufficient evidence to press charges, many factors weigh heavily on the side of the police. Police officers must often make split second decisions, and in the absence of malice or gross negligence, the officer is often acquitted of any charges related to a shooting.

The prosecutor also has great influence in directing the grand jury either toward acquittal or filing criminal charges. Prosecutors often work with police departments and depend on officers' testimony when prosecuting cases, so it is possible for a prosecutor to be more favorable toward the officer when police shootings occur.

If criminal convictions are unlikely, what incentives can be used to persuade police departments to question the methods used in community policing?

Civil lawsuits in police shootings

In the absence of a criminal conviction, a personal injury lawyer will assist the family of a police shooting victim to file a civil lawsuit against the offending police department. A civil suit is different from a criminal prosecution in that proof of malice or misconduct is not necessary to secure a judgement.

The fact that a shooting incident occurred because of the officer's actions is sufficient. A personal injury lawyer will offer other possible actions that the officer could have taken, and convey the enormity of the loss experienced by the victim's family. History has shown that civil suits filed on behalf of victims of police shootings have resulted in multi-million dollar settlements against the local municipalities where the police departments operate.

Civil court settlements and their effect on community policing

This is how public policy will be changed toward community policing in at-risk neighborhoods. Street protests bring awareness to the issue, but also result in resentment and antipathy from the general public when they become disruptive to commerce and traffic. Riots and violence result only in police crackdowns and more distance between police and the community.

Money talks, and multi-million dollar lawsuits shout loud enough to awaken sleeping bureaucrats to the fact that something must be done about community policing. Public policy changes are the only solution. Extensive training will be necessary for officers who will serve in high risk areas, and civilian review boards created for assessing incidents of possible police misconduct.

Body cameras for all police officers, once thought to be cost prohibitive, are now being considered in many localities. These cameras will protect both police officers and civilians in cases of alleged police misconduct, and force a civility that may become the norm.