The Witness Box

4/12/2016
Police Misconduct in the Court of Public Opinion

It is next to impossible to open a newspaper, turn on a television, or click on the internet without encountering a story involving the alleged misconduct of a law enforcement officer. Police misconduct and brutality are currently hot topics that incite intense emotion, regardless of which side of the debate you fall on. The mere mention of an officer allegedly involved in the shooting of an unarmed suspect causes an immediate, and sometimes violent, reaction.

What most people fail to realize or to take into consideration, however, is that there are likely facts – very important facts – missing from the story. Journalists often report on a “breaking news” story within minutes of the incident. Journalists rush to be the first to report the story, without consideration of the actual facts and circumstances surrounding the incident. Media thrives on sensationalism. Sensationalism attracts viewers.

The problem with the media attention of incidents involving officer misconduct is that the public hears one side of the story – the side most likely to garner the most attention and cause the greatest public reaction. The public forms an opinion based on the information they first receive, which often points fingers at, and condemns the law enforcement officer. Once an opinion or perception is formed, it is difficult to change despite facts to the contrary.

Understanding the Law

Pursuant to Section 1983 of the United States Code, anyone acting under the authority of state law may not deprive another person of his or her rights under the Constitution or federal law. False arrest and use of excessive or unreasonable force (think Ferguson) are common claims brought against police officers.

Typically officers are trained to follow “objective reasonableness standards” when using deadly force. The objective reasonableness standard includes carefully balancing the rights of citizens and the rights of law enforcement officers. Simply stated, the level of force used by an officer is what the officer considers reasonable under the circumstances. The U.S. Supreme Court held that police may resort to deadly force provided there is a threat to someone’s life.

Do mistakes happen? Sure. Do cops sometimes make the wrong split-second decision? Of course. Are members of law enforcement, for the most part, doing what they can to ensure our safety as well as their own? Absolutely. Just as with any profession, we cannot judge all law enforcement on one, two, or even ten bad actors. Doing so not only adds to distrust and discord within a community, but can incite further violence.

When you hear a story about alleged police misconduct or police brutality, try not to react immediately. Listen to the facts presented. Look for other media outlets dispersing new or different information. Put yourself in the shoes of both the officer and the victim. What would you do in that circumstance? How would you react if there was a threat to your life or someone else’s life? Wait for more information prior to passing judgment on the officer or officers involved. Uninformed opinions and perceptions only help to damage the reputation of the law enforcement profession, and further ignite the distrust among the public. While law enforcement officers who fail to act in accordance with the law should face criminal prosecution, we should afford them the same protections and procedures as any other profession or individual. If we all took a moment to gather all the facts and think about those facts in relationship to the incident at hand, we could curb the public’s dissatisfaction with law enforcement and focus more on protecting our communities.

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Mr. Brison is a civil rights defense and municipal liability attorney, with experience in police misconduct cases. Mr. Brison recently served on the faculty of a Continuing Legal Education seminar entitled “Police Liability Claims from Start to Finish.”