Five Areas of Law As It Relates to Law Enforcement
As a law enforcement professional for more than 17 years I can attest to the fact that there are five major areas of law which play some part in how the job is performed. Constitutional Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, Employment Law, and Criminal Law are all areas in which law enforcement officers must be familiar with in order to survive a twenty-plus year career in an ever changing and evolving profession. This is an overview and the first of three short articles which will go further into these five areas.
These areas of law have established guidelines and rules which if not followed can result in the potential for civil liability to the officer, supervisors, the department and the governing body. If the violation of law is severe enough, criminal charges could also follow for not only the individual who committed the crime, but also those that facilitated the actions. This is routinely referred to as vicarious liability. Employers have a duty to ensure officers receive proper training, education and guidance to perform their jobs within the confines of the law and appropriate policies and procedures. Negligence on the part of an employer is in the simplest terms the catalyst to vicarious liability.
Over the years and having moved up the ranks from patrolman, detective, sergeant and chief, I have grown to realize that these areas of law have had an increased meaning and importance with how I must perform my duties. The old adage “had I known then what I know now” comes to mind here and one I hope all young police officers will give some thought to, earlier rather than later.
As a patrolman I was primarily responsible for myself and my own actions. While the department may be subjected to vicarious liability, this term was not widely used when I started and even if it was, wouldn’t have meant much to me at the time. If I made a mistake then I was the one held accountable and quite frankly the blame ended with me. To this day I believe this is the way it should be providing there is not some blatant and severe negligence on the part of the agency.
As a sergeant and first-line supervisor, it became very clear that I was now responsible for not only myself, but the officers assigned under me. While this is true to a certain degree, I still had the upper management to fall back on and for the most part, all but “wipe my hands” of any issues that I had no control over or didn’t agree with, providing I was able to articulate legitimate reasons for my disagreement. If the upper management did not accept my recommendations or observations in regards to something I felt was a violation of the five areas of law mentioned above, my liability had been reduced if not eliminated. As the chief, this “fall-back” quickly disappeared and it the responsibility is all mine. As they say, “careful what you wish for.”