Changing How Police Officers Are Trained May Change Outcomes of Deadly Force Trials

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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PoliceLawsuits against police officers who shoot unarmed suspects have proliferated as those shootings have become commonplace.  While the officers involved are often disciplined or fired, juries typically decline to award compensation to the families of unarmed individuals who are killed in police encounters.

Criminal juries are even less likely to find officers guilty of a crime when they shoot people who pose no threat. Few police officers are charged with a crime after killing unarmed suspects and even fewer are convicted.

Juries Favor Police Officers

Jurors tend to sympathize with officers. Jurors view the police as the “good guys” who perform a job that is both difficult and risky. While the risk to which police officers are exposed is real, it is often overstated. From a statistical perspective, loggers, roofers, and farmers have more dangerous jobs than police officers.

Admittedly, people who carry guns are more likely to murder police officers than loggers, but felony murders of police officers have been declining over the last four decades. Police shootings of unarmed suspects, on the other hand, have increased.

Juries deciding wrongful death and criminal cases that are filed against police officers routinely hear testimony that the police are trained to protect themselves by reacting to ambiguous situations with deadly force. Experts in “use of force” explain that police officers must make split second decisions under tense circumstances.

No one doubts that police officers are entitled to defend themselves when a suspect is actually armed. However, use-of-force experts testify that officers do not have the luxury of waiting to see if a suspect is armed. When they pull over a driver who reaches for a wallet that holds a driver’s license, the suspect could be reaching for a gun.

According to use-of-force experts, waiting to see if the driver is reaching for a gun or a wallet could end in the officer’s death, because officers do not have time to react if the officer waits to identify a weapon before shooting. As controversial expert William J. Lewinski has testified, from an officer’s perspective, “If I wait to see the gun, I’m dead.”

Other experts, testifying for the plaintiff or prosecution, might conclude that an officer’s decision to shoot was unjustified. Faced with a choice between competing expert opinions, however, jurors generally side with the officers.

To Protect and to Serve

A familiar motto of law enforcement agencies is “to protect and to serve.” But when the police are trained to shoot first and ask questions later, the motto takes on a new meaning. Are police officers hired to protect the public or to protect themselves? They should do both, but when the two goals are in conflict, is it better for the officer to risk his own life or to shoot an innocent person who might pose no threat at all?

Police advocacy organizations answer that question by arguing that the police must put their own safety first. While juries tend to agree, the families who mourn victims of police shootings wonder whether police officers should be required to put the safety of innocent persons ahead of their own interests.

Putting an End to Fear-Based Training

The mayor of Minneapolis recently announced that Minneapolis officers would no longer be allowed to participate in “fear-based or warrior training.” Mayor Jacob Frey acted in the aftermath of a trial that found a Minneapolis officer guilty of shooting Justine Ruszczyk to death after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in an alley.

Ruszczyk was wearing pajamas and was unarmed. She approached the officer’s car to explain that she had called 911. Startled by her unexpected appearance, the officer shot her without determining whether she posed a threat. The officer’s attorney told the jury that the officer was facing “a potential ambush scenario.”

In his announcement, Frey explained that police training based on instilling fear in officers has no place in Minneapolis because it “does not align with the culture and mission of our chief, and serves no purpose in our police department.” Rather than making the unwarranted assumption that everyone they encounter might try to kill them, officers should be trained to put public safety first.

The new policy in Minneapolis reflects a growing trend. Revised use-of-force policies in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles are designed to minimize unnecessary shootings of unarmed victims. Changing policies and training is an essential step to helping family members recover compensation for the wrongful deaths of innocent shooting victims.

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