In my career, I have represented all sides of these issues. Early in my career, I represented the cities of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills in defending high-profile police excessive-force cases and felt very strongly, in the cases where I represented officers, the officers had done what they had done properly. Many of the police-misconduct cases that are brought are meritless because police have a very difficult job and they are there to protect us. It is difficult and really quite problematic to try to always second-guess them under such unsafe conditions.
But when we entrust officers with badges and guns, there is sometimes the unfortunate effect that some police officers believe they can do no wrong and then other police officers cover for them. That is an unfortunate byproduct of a paramilitary culture in which they cover for one another because of the fear that if they “rat someone out,” people aren’t going to watch their backs on the job. This becomes a very serious problem when one is trying to investigate a police-misconduct case because you don’t have other witnesses. We are now in an era where video footage is becoming increasingly available: citizen video footage, dashcam footage, bodycam footage, and footage from nearby buildings. We are able to obtain accountability for more instances of police brutality than we used to. That’s a good thing.
It was important to me when I left public service as Cleveland's law director that ordinary citizens affected by civil-rights violations—including police misconduct—have access to the same quality of representation to fight for their rights as big corporations.
Many people, if there is an instance of police excessive force by an individual officer or officers, believe that the first thing they need to do is to sue the city that employs that officer. What they don’t understand is that you cannot simply sue the city that employs the police officer without a particular type of evidence that is quite challenging to obtain. You might be able to sue the police officer and succeed, if the use of force was truly excessive and violated clearly established law, but suing the actual municipality is much more problematic. The U.S. Supreme Court has imposed a rule that to hold the city accountable, the use of force must have been the product of a custom, policy, pattern, or practice by the municipality.
If it was a onetime incident of excessive force that violated the police department’s written rules, you may not be able to hold the city liable. You may be limited in your ability to recover from the city. By doing a proper investigation and asking for public records, you may be able to show that the officer’s conduct is part of a broader pattern of misconduct by that officer or other officers, which is the product of unconstitutional policies either formal or informal. That is often extremely difficult to prove. This is an area that requires serious experience to litigate properly. You can’t go to just an ordinary personal-injury lawyer. Police-misconduct litigation requires particular experience because it is quite easy for the defense to derail these cases early on, and then the victims of excessive force never get justice based on legal technicalities.
It’s quite depressing for us, as people who focus our practice in this area, to see some other lawyers fumble these cases because they lack the experience to do them correctly. Just because someone was a victim of police misconduct or brutality doesn’t mean that obtaining justice for them is easy. It’s not.
For more information on police-misconduct cases in Ohio, and elsewhere, please call our office today at (216) 578-1700 and speak with one of our intake specialists, or fill out our online contact form.