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Police Agencies & Civil Liability: An Ounce of Prevention

Updated on April 15, 2016
tjlajoie profile image

Tim is a certified police chaplain. He holds a M.A. in Management/Leadership Studies and M.S. in Criminal Justice.


Civil liability is a major concern for criminal justice agencies and policies should be in place to inform officers of the various situations and incidents that lead to civil action. Further, the professional performance expectations of law enforcement officers should be clearly communicated by their departments and their communities. The situations that lead to civil liability have been costly in terms of dollars and the public perception of law enforcement officers (Ortmeier & Meese, 2010; Spencer, 2007). Complaints of corruption, excessive force, constitutional rights violations, and internal department issues like sexual harassment and discrimination are the leading causes of civil liability cases and agencies need to consider how to address this challenge and minimize exposure to civil liability claims; the esteem of the profession and its relationship with the public make it imperative.


The performance expectation on criminal justice agencies is high, higher than most public organizations because of the authority they are entrusted with wielding. The nature of criminal justice work and potential for unethical abuses (real or fabricated), the high public profile, and an increasingly litigious society create a fertile environment for civil liability action if the citizens wish to pursue it, for whatever reason (Jurkanin, Hoover, Dowling, & Ahmad, 2001). A criminal justice organization must find that delicate balance of the appropriate legal action an officer can take and the public perception of how that officer carries it out.

Lawsuits resulting from perceived illegal action taken by an officer of the law as an individual are rare. More commonly civil liability action is directed against the individual agency that employs the officer. There is a great burden placed on the agency to prove that it had applied all of the necessary legal safeguards to prevent the abuse, did not act indifferent to the illegal behavior, and did not allow a professional environment to exist which encouraged the illegal behavior that violated the rights of the plaintiff to exist in the first place (Spencer, 2007). Criminal justice agencies need to be prepared to incorporate proactive policy measures that reduce its liability risk and ensure its personnel are properly trained.


Criminal justice agencies are responsible for the misconduct of its agents in the performance of their duties. Malley v. Briggs, Anderson v. Creighton, Osabutey v. Welch, and Cooper v. Dupnik were cases which involved officers who operated outside of their constitutional authority. The organizations that employed the officers involved were held responsible for the acts these officers committed as employees. Liability, however, extends beyond acts of individuals.

An employer is also directly liable for its hiring practices, especially if those practices are negligent and lead to hiring personnel who then commit unlawful acts within the scope of their employment (Bagley & Savage, 2010). This is an especially relevant concern of the criminal justice community. Consequently, it is important to emphasize professional ethics as the foundation of any agency’s personnel department, as it is most likely to lead to an ethical performance of duties (Ortmeier & Meese, 2010).

Adequate Protections

Criminal justice professionals will be exposed to many scenarios in the performance of their duties and not all of them will have to do with specifically law enforcement functions. Courts have decided that the burden of preparation to manage those scenarios rests with the agency. Agencies must be informed and prepared to meet the legal bar established by the courts.

Training & Policy

Failure to train can be the foundation of a civil liability lawsuit against an agency (Schmalleger, 2011). City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris found that agencies can be held responsible for injuries to the plaintiffs if proper training could have prevented the behavior. This case is particularly relevant because the violation charged in this case was lack of providing proper medical attention to an individual in police custody. Subsequently, the court found that proper training would have provided the officers with the knowledge to seek medical attention in a timely fashion. With regard to training policy, it is the responsibility of the agency to provide training that encompasses a plethora of scenarios that do not simply address criminal justice issues. There is an expectation that law enforcement officers will acquire knowledge of scenarios they may encounter during their law enforcement duties.

In addition to comprehensive training programs, internal personnel recruiting practices need to place an emphasis on training that is received before being hired, in particular a college education. Criminal justice agencies with higher personnel education levels have fewer lawsuits filed against them and their agencies (Ortmeier & Meese, 2010), resulting in a three-fold benefit to the community.

First, college education is training that the department did not have to pay for; second, the money that is not spent on civil liability payments can be used to recruit better quality candidates; third, a college education can provide well-rounded knowledge relevant to law enforcement duties that cannot be learned in the police academies. A well-educated law enforcement officer is lower risk asset to any community and should be a hiring priority for any criminal justice agency. This minimizes the risk that actions outside the law will be taken by officers in the day-to-day performance of their duties.


Policy considerations are often decided by the courts (Neubauer & Fradella, 2014) and serve as the guiding light agencies must employ when crafting their training policies. In addition, current training practices should be employed when crafting training programs. Subsequently, training topics/programs should be regular, relevant, adult-learning based, and should simulate, whenever possible, scenarios most likely to be encountered on the job (Ortmeier & Meese, 2010). The City of Dayton, Ohio decision noted that this training should be “up-to-date.” It is not enough to just simply “train.” Training should have a specific purpose and address specific challenges likely to confront the agency’s responsibilities. For example, a prison may not find much use for training in arrest procedures but may find significant use for training in custodial suicide prevention.

Competent Instruction & Frequency

Competent trainers are a requirement. The industry has responded in the last thirty years to the need for professional standards in training programs. Agencies must seek out reputable training programs created by recognized experts in the field. Organizations like the American Society for Law Enforcement Training, which was established in 1987, have provided quality training to agencies throughout the United States (Schmalleger, 2011).

` Because the criminal justice field is always changing, it is important for agencies to foster an attitude of lifelong training and education. This is the only way to prepare for and confront the challenges which face the criminal justice profession everyday. The rewards for creating an environment of learning are increased productivity, morale, organizational commitment, and more ethical job performance; all lower the risk of incurring liability action (Ortmeier & Meese, 2010).


Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Ethics and training will help prevent the likelihood that an organization will face damaging and expensive civil litigation. Creating an organization that encompasses exemplary ethical conduct is the best way to prevent damaging misconduct (Bagley & Savage, 2010). Lawsuits and civil litigation can be avoided by “adequate training, better screening of applicants, close supervision of officers, and ‘treating people fairly,’” (Schmalleger, 2011).

How does this apply to the criminal justice organization? Employ the most ethical and best educated personnel you can find. This is best accomplished in the initial hiring process, where unqualified applicants can be better screened out. Once hired, maintain an environment of high ethical expectations. Provide the most relevant, up-to-date, and reputable training available. This is the formula to a high performing and qualified agency that serves the best interest of the public and earns their respect and loyalty.

Sources cited

Bagley, C. & Savage, D. (2010). Managers and the legal environment, 6th edition: Strategies for the 21st century. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Jurkanin, T., Hoover, L., Dowling, J., & Ahmad, J. (2001). Enduring, surviving, and thriving as a law enforcement executive. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, LTD.

Neubauer, D. & Fradella, H. (2014). America’s courts and the criminal justice system, 11th Edition, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Learning.

Ortmeier, P. & Meese, E III. (2010). Leadership, ethics, and policing: Challenges for the 21st century, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schmalleger, F. (2011). Criminal justice today: An introductory text for the 21st century, 11th edition, Upper Saddle River, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Spencer, W. (2007, June). Suggested topics for training police departments in Section1983 Liability. Paper presented at the semi-annual meeting of the Texas City Attorney’s Association.


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    • bodylevive profile image

      BODYLEVIVE 10 months ago from Alabama, USA

      I'm with you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      bradmasterOCcal 20 months ago from Orange County California

      This is a well written and organized article. Nevertheless, as I was reading it, I didn't see what I think were the cause of the police civil liability.

      1. The Master Slave relation between the Employer and the Employee, as you stated gives the Employer legal liability for the actions of the Employee. It is the Deeper Pocket that the lawyers go for, rather than the actual participation or non participation of the employer.

      "Let the Master Answer".

      2. Police Chases.

      This is one area where the police in pursuing the vehicle can needlessly put the innocent public at a deadly risk. The methods currently employed in CA are dismal. Yes, the driver of the vehicle started it, but the proven ineffective means of stopping that driver by the police, is in and of itself a cause of potential liability. In this day, and age of news and police helicopters, pursuit by police on the ground needs a new paradigm, and more effective defensive methods.

      The EMP gun, or any disruption of the electronics of the pursued vehicle would be more effective than the bulk of the other methods. Car chases are more common in CA, but there are over 38 million people here.

      3. Training

      Again, in CA training of the police officers seems to be the kink in the armor. There was a case, a couple of years ago, when a police officer was being hunted down for murder. Police surrounded a vehicle that they believed had the suspect. They fired hundreds of rounds into the vehicle. They hit the occupants once or twice. This alone was dismal, and it can be linked to poor training and inexperienced blooded officers. When a person is scared, the motor skills, especially the ones that are used in shooting a gun, are diminished to course movements. This would account why they missed almost all of their targets. A well trained officer would be in control of their fear.

      The worst thing about this incident, there were two old ladies in the vehicle, and not the suspect. They were delivering newspapers.

      This second point is also a reflection of poor training. Without identifying the target, they put innocent civilians in mortal danger.

      Take out the vehicle so it can't move, and you just damaged the vehicle without harming the occupants.

      Also, there have been many cases in CA, where the suspect is blown away by gunfire, for trying to move the vehicle. Disabling the vehicle would have been the better choice than having multiple officers fire the death sentence. That is the basis liability problem. In this case, none of the officers were in the line of the vehicle movement.

      Better training is not just developing gun skills, or take down techniques, or leaning martial arts, the decision making process is where training can make the difference between murdering the suspect, or taking them into custody.

      Is being a police officer a dangerous job, yes. But it is one that makes the officer the judge, jury, and even executioner.

      My point is that civil liability of the police department should be secondary to the safety of the innocent civilians that are put in harm's way because the training, and the police techniques are shown not to be effective.

      I am not pro criminal, but pro innocent civilian.


    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 20 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Fantastic hub. Great ideas. Sharing on HP and Twitter. Keep up the good work.