most police administrators will acknowledge the rise of civil law suits being
filed against law enforcement officers, many do not take the time or dedicate
the resources necessary to prepare their personnel to deal with the civil
lawsuit process. A civil lawsuit adjudicated against an officer can result in a
loss for both the officer and the agency for which he works. Proper preparation
and training of officers to give them a better understanding of the civil
process can enhance the internal health of the organization.
are trained to testify in criminal cases which, in most incidents, do not
involve a direct consequence to the officers or the law enforcement agency for
which they work if the case is not adjudicated in their favor. When an officer
is involved in a civil lawsuit filed against him/her or the agency he/she is
employed by, the officer may experience a different level of stress than he/she
is accustomed to when testifying in criminal cases and may not have a proper
understanding of the civil judicial process. Law enforcement administrators and
trainers should ensure that officers have knowledge of the civil lawsuit
process and are prepared to represent themselves and the agency if a suit is
filed against them.
law firms will file a civil lawsuit against an officer or law enforcement
agency for a plaintiff with an agreement that the law firm will receive payment
only if the plaintiff receives a settlement from the suit. This type of
agreement provides much motivation for attorneys to invest time and resources
needed to develop a winning case or to create a situation where a settlement
will be offered to avoid litigation.
a civil lawsuit, an officer’s personnel records and performance will be
scrutinized and often his/her integrity will be challenged. The officer will be
deposed in an environment which is unfamiliar to him/her and under a set of
judicial rules to which he/she may not be accustomed. Law enforcement
administrators should be equally willing to invest the time and resources
needed to prepare their officers to win civil lawsuits.
should not rely on the fact that officers are trained and experienced in
presenting criminal cases as an indicator of their preparedness to perform well
during a civil lawsuit. Dealing with a civil lawsuit can have a negative impact
on an officer. An officer accused of wrong-doing may experience stress that is
manifested in many different ways.
officers, believing they are being judged by their peers or supervisors, may isolate
themselves from others, may become overly cautious when performing their
duties, may begin to question their abilities to continue work as law
enforcement officers, experience problems in their personal lives, or develop
other stress-related behaviors.
is not reasonable to believe that all the stress an officer will experience due
to being named in a civil lawsuit can be eliminated. It is reasonable for law
enforcement administrators and trainers to take actions, which can help reduce
stress that an officer will experience during a civil lawsuit. Preparing
officers to better represent themselves and the agency during a lawsuit can
greatly help both the officer and the agency through the civil litigation
enforcement agencies should develop a training program to give their employees
the knowledge and skills to survive the challenges of a civil lawsuit. Taking a
proactive approach to address issues associated with civil litigation may
result in career survival for some employees. If law enforcement officers are
asked about their training and experiences in prosecuting criminal cases, they
will be able to relate training and court experiences from the beginning of
their career to the present.
asked about their experiences and training in giving depositions and testifying
in civil lawsuits, most officers will indicated that they have little or no
formal training or experience in regard to civil litigation. When an officer is
able to answer that he/she has had experience in the civil lawsuit process, it
usually indicates that he/she has received no formal training to prepare for
the civil litigation process.
and law enforcement trainers have an obligation to prepare officers to perform
their duties to the best of their abilities. Officers should be trained to
perform successfully during civil depositions or when testifying in civil cases
where the agency’s policies, practices, customs, and the officer’s actions and
conduct will be challenged.
law enforcement agencies have experienced the consequences of having an officer
who was unprepared to perform successfully during the challenges of civil
litigation. Those types of incidents not only create problems for the officer
and the agency but can also have a negative financial impact on the community
the agency serves. When citizens learn that law enforcement incurred a civil
judgment against the agency, the community may have a loss of confidence in the
an agency experiences civil litigation, the agency’s administrators and
trainers should review the case and the officer’s performance to evaluate their
strengths and weaknesses once the case is adjudicated. The agency should
examine their policies and practices relating to the initial incident that resulted
in the civil action. The agency should review the performance of their
personnel during the initial incident and the performance of personnel during
the civil litigation process.
evaluation should be conducted that includes the performance of personnel
involved in civil litigation during the multiple phases of the litigation
process. The evaluation should examine personnel’s performance and conduct
during case preparation with attorneys, the deposition process, court room
testimony, and post-trial behavior. When a deficiency is discovered, a corrective
action should be taken. If it is discovered that personnel involved in civil
litigation made mistakes during the civil process, training should be conducted
to correct the deficiencies.
learned from reviewing a civil litigation process should be conveyed to all
personnel of the department to strengthen future performance. Law enforcement
officers should be aware of common tactics used by plaintiffs’ attorneys in
civil cases. Officers should also be educated to understand the different
emotions the officers themselves could experience during civil depositions and
court room testimony that they may not experience while giving testimony in
criminal cases. A better understanding of emotions caused by the stress of
civil litigation could impact an officer’s performance, thereby increasing the
chance for a successful outcome.
required to give depositions should have an understanding of the plaintiff’s
attorney’s role, the role of the attorney representing the officers and the
agency, the officers’ rights during the process, and their right to have copies
of transcripts and recordings made during the depositions of their
testimony. Without proper training from
the agency, many officers may not have an understanding of the deposition
to each phase of a civil process, officers should review all documents,
recordings, and reports related to the incident and be familiar with any
previous statements they have made concerning the initial incident that resulted
in the lawsuit. Officers should be trained in the dynamics of court room
testimony, building rapport with a jury, understanding the message their body
language may be conveying, and the need for professional behavior throughout
the civil litigation process.
conducted for officers should also include pre-deposition and pre-trial
preparation. An agency should not make assumptions that their personnel are
prepared to deal with civil litigations. In many agencies, the need to train
officers to address issues associated with civil lawsuits brought against the
officers and the agency is overlooked. Most basic law-enforcement training
academies and field training programs include training to prepare officers for
the criminal court process but do not include civil litigation training as part
of their curriculum.
should be trained in the type of documents, reports, and recordings they should
be reviewing prior to give testimony in a civil case. Officers should be given
time, while on duty, to properly prepare for defending the agency and
themselves. Allowing department personnel the time and access to the resources
they need to prepare for civil lawsuits can increase the probability that the
case will end favorably for the officers and the agency.
a civil judgment has been awarded against an agency, supervisors and managers
will often comment on the fact that the involved personnel did not do well
defending against the lawsuit. However, the need for corrective action to
prepare the agency’s personnel for future civil actions is often
overlooked. A proper review to determine
the cause of a loss must include the performance of the agency’s personnel who
were involved in the litigation.
often attempt to correct deficiencies after the loss of a lawsuit by addressing
issues of training or evaluation of policies relating to high-risk areas. The
agency may evaluate their policies and procedures with no emphasis placed on
the department’s and the individual employee’s performance during the civil
process. The agency must acknowledge both their strengths and weaknesses in
order to better prepare their personnel for civil litigations.
to giving a deposition or testimony in a civil case, an officer should have a
case review meeting with the attorney who is representing the officer and the
agency. Should the attorney responsible for representing the officer and the
agency not contact the officer to schedule a review meeting, a command level
supervisor should arrange the review meeting by contacting the attorney.
case review meeting will allow an officer the opportunity to become familiar
with the attorney with whom he/she will be working, ask questions about the
civil process, and address any concerns he/she has about the facts of the case.
The review meeting will also give the attorney a chance to become familiar with
the officer involved in the case and to address any concerns he/she may have
regarding the case.
in a criminal case, officers should acknowledge to their attorney any concerns
they have regarding the facts of a civil case. In the dynamic environment of
law enforcement, mistakes may be made. A plaintiff’s attorney will make every
effort to discover any mistake that an officer might have made. If a
plaintiff’s attorney discovers an error made by an officer, he/she will use the
information to make his case look stronger against the officer and the
error discovered may be used in an attempt to discredit the officer or the
policies and procedures of the organization. In order to reduce the impact a
mistake may have on the outcome of a civil litigation, an officer should
acknowledge the mistake and discuss it with his/her legal representative. Discussing any areas of concern prior to giving
a deposition or testimony in a civil case will assist both the officer and the
attorney involved in defending the case.
enforcement agencies do not expect their personnel to perform critical tasks
without proper training. Prior to an officer being involved in civil
litigation, agency administrators and supervisors should take the time to
ensure that the officer is properly trained and has an understanding of the
civil process. Many hours of training and review are invested in officers to
assure they are prepared to perform the complex and often dangerous tasks
associated with law enforcement. The need to train and prepare officers to be
successful during a civil litigation against the officer or the agency the
officer is employed by should not be ignored.
Roger D. Overholt is the Chief of Police
in Morristown, Tenn. He has a Master’s Degree from Tusculum College and is a
graduate of the FBI National Academy. He may be reached at
Michelle Jones is the Major with the Morristown, Tenn.
Police. She has a Master’s Degree from Tusculum College and is a graduate of
the Tennessee Law Enforcement Executive Development training program.