Policing | Section 3.5

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Police Civil Liability

The specter of police civil liability looms large over law enforcement agencies in the United States.  Many police officers feel that they are in danger of being sued for every action they take. In reality, the courts generally sanction police officers only for gross misconduct.  There are various categories of liability that can attach to police misconduct. The first major category is civil actions brought against police officers.

Every person in America is guaranteed certain constitutional rights. If a law enforcement officer violates these rights, the officer, the officer’s superiors, the officer’s agency, and the officer’s community may become liable to the victim. In law, the term civil refers to the civil court system as opposed to the criminal justice system.  The term liability means the officer and others may be responsible for compensating the victim of the rights violation.  This compensation is in the form of money called damages.

The idea of civil liability can be complicated because the same act can be both a tort (a civil wrong) and a crime.  It is worth noting that the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy does not prevent the same person from going to court for the same act as a criminal charge and a civil lawsuit.  For example, an officer that uses unlawful excessive force on a suspect may be criminally charged with battery and sued for damages in civil court. Because the civil and criminal systems are different, the Supreme Court has ruled that double jeopardy does not apply in these situations.

Tort is an old French word meaning “injury.” In the modern legal context, a tort is a wrongful act by one person that gives another person the right to sue the actor. The victim in a civil case is always seeking money, known in civil law as damages. Often, the parties to a civil case will resolve the dispute prior to going to trial.  Such an “out of court” resolution is known as a settlement.

A person who sues a police officer is often far more interested in the agency that the officer works for than the officer. While a victim of a civil rights violation can sue an individual law enforcement officer, but the reward is usually minimal. In most cases, the individual officer will be named in the suit, but the officer’s agency is named as well.  This is because public agencies are liable for the actions of their employees. Agencies usually have large budgets, and the potential award is much bigger. This is why agencies (rather than individual officers) are often said to have “deep pockets.”

Civil Actions


Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  06/14/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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