Magazine article Risk Management

Walking the Thin Blue Line of Police Liability

Magazine article Risk Management

Walking the Thin Blue Line of Police Liability

Article excerpt

The cry of outrage over the beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King a few months ago and subsequent calls for the dismissal of that city's police chief, Daryl Gates, have been heard in almost every town in America that employs police officers to "protect and serve." Although finding effective ways to manage police liability has been a popular topic for years among risk managers in the public sector, a heightened sense of urgency because of such incidents seemed to pervade the police liability session at the annual Public Risk and Insurance Management Association conference in Atlanta in mid-May.

"If you don't train people to follow specific policy, then deliberate difference' situations could occur, with civil rights infringements as a result," said G. Patrick Gallagher, director of the Institute for Liability Management in Leesburg, VA. "Police don't look as stringently at method as they do at outcome, and that is just planting the seeds of future liability."

According to Mr. Gallagher, there is no substitute for clear, concise and constitutionally enforced police department policy. "I'm convinced police can beat any system they understand," he said. "However, plaintiff's attorneys can find out in nanoseconds the most recent Supreme Court decisions on the use of excessive force. They're out to get us, but officers and supervisors don't know these decisions."

In an ironic admission, Mr. Gallagher said most officers admit they know less about law than any other area of police work. However, he added, the pressure of an "increasingly legalistic" environment will be brought to bear on officers, such as those who perpetrated the Rodney King beating.

"There will be much greater scrutiny and sensitivity by juries of use of force," Mr. Gallagher said. To combat this situation, he said, supervisors' roles must be highlighted; mission statements and policies must be generated and strong values instilled throughout police departments; and resources, training and policy support must be properly directed.

According to Mr. Gallagher, effective policies prepare and hold supervisors accountable and stress discipline. "Discipline is protection when you go into court," he said. "If you can respond affirmatively to disciplining officers in the past, it shows you have your act together."

Mr. Gallagher also stressed that administrative action, when warranted, should be taken against officers who break the rules. "We have to think like the enemy ... the plaintiff's attorneys," he said. …

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