I’m sorry if the thread title is a little misleading.
If Hollywood can be believed, it seems that US police officers are not unaccustomed to regularly shooting at the bad guys. In contrast, any Australian police officer who finds him/herself in the same unfortunate position would be subjected to much rigourous investigation as to whether the circumstances warranted the actions taken. If the target is actually hit or even killed, then the gravity of proceedings takes on a whole new dimension.
So what’s the story in real-life America? Are your cops just as accountable as ours in this regard, or is Dirty Harry more than just a movie character?
A girl I used to work with is married to a policeman, and he was recently involved in a shootout with someone he was attempting to arrest. Unfortunately, the person was killed. The cop was given a leave of absence for several days while an investigation was conducted. I believe he was allowed to return once it was determined that his actions were (unfortunately) warranted.
Typically, here in the Midwest, an officer is placed on paid leave after a shooting incident where a person - any person - is injured. If an officer fires his weapon and there are no injuries of any kind, or property damage of note, then a lengthy amount of paperwork is required, but often they are not put on leave. Anyhow - following an incident where there is damage, injury, or loss of life, the officer often has the case reviewed by their superiors, internal affairs divisions, and sometimes (depending on the city laws) by a panel of citizens or others. Sometimes a judge is required to review it.
Now, in the case of a wrongful shooting, or wrongful death, the officer is often placed on unpaid leave, and may or may not be tried. Trials are pretty uncommon, and most often (I can only recall one incident) the officer is never convicted of a crime. Typically, they return to work, and then are moved off to another city pretty quickly.
Now…just because they aren’t convicted of a crime in a wrongful shooting does not mean that there are not consequences. What happens next is a civil suit against the city, and the same citizens who are reluctant to hold the officer responsible are often seemingly very eager to award huge sums of money from the city in a civil award.
The thing to remember in looking at the US, from any context, is:
Hollywood believes that, for the most part, there is no US other than the West and East coast. That middle 2000 miles or so is irrelevant.
Every single State, County, and Town has different procedures and regulations for handling these things, and what I outlined above is what is typical for the many cities and counties that make up the Metropolitan area I live in. Many non-US citizens make the mistake of thinking that the States are more uniform than they are - it’s best to think of them in some places as being like an EC…
In general people strongly support the police, even when mistakes are made.
> 2) Hollywood believes that, for the most part, there is
> no US other than the West and East coast. That middle
> 2000 miles or so is irrelevant.
And furthermore, although they know that the East Coast exists, they always get the geography wrong. I’ve never seen a movie about Washington, D.C. where the path travelled around the city made any sense. But for all I know, they don’t get Californian geography right either.
On the average, a U.S. police officer only fires his gun once every 27 years, which means that only about half of all officers have to fire their guns during their career. (I’m talking about firing in an operational situation, not for practice at a firing range.) Pretty much everywhere in the U.S., a police office is suspended with pay if he or she fires his gun on the job. It takes several days to several weeks to investigate what happened, even in situations where it was clear that what the officer did was warranted.
The really controversial situtations occur when there is some evidence that the police officer wasn’t justified in shooting. Prosecutors tend to be reluctant to charge a police officer in such a cases, other police officers tend to defend a fellow officer’s action no matter what, and juries tend to be reluctant to convict a police officer.
Unless a cop works in a really high-crime area, it’s quite common for a US police officer to go through his/her entire career and only ever fire their gun at the target range. As for the way Hollywood presents things: remember that 90% of movie and TV scripts are written by no-talent losers with only a marginal knowledge of Real Life. If the script concerns anything religous or spiritual, you can up that percentage to around 99.9%
Police are given a WIDE latitude to justify why they shot someone. A recent case involved a black, Harvard-graduate business major. An plain clothes cop in an unmarked car mistook him for a wanted drug dealer and started following the man’s Bronco. The guy appearantly saw that he was being followed, pulled into a driveway that wasn’t his. The cop–again, in plain clothes and an unmarked car–pulled in behind him. The guy, no doubt scared at this point, tried to pull out of the driveway to escape his stalker. The cop, saying he “feared for his life”, took his gun and shot him. The police gets off, and the guys fiance and child get nothing.
There are four independent proceedings that can result from a police officer shoots somebody. They are (1) an administrative action within the police department, (2) a criminal charge from local or state prosecutor, (3) a federal criminal civil rights charge by the Department of Justice, and/or (4) a civil lawsuit by the injured person or dead person’s estate. The results of any of these proceedings are not binding on any of the other tribunals.
The first thing that happens in nearly all cases would be an adminstrative proceeding within the local police department that is likely to be concluded within a matter of days. Officers are typically, subject to local regulatory differences, put on paid leave until the conclusion of of the administrative hearing. If the shooting is justified, the officer is returned to service. If the shooting is unjustified, in every case I have reviewed, the sanction has been termination of employment. I would be really shocked to see a police department return a wrongful shooter to service.
I have never heard of an adminsitrative proceeding with a right of participation for the victim or the victim’s family. The proceedings are typically private, and often regarded with suspicion by the general public.
Regardless of the outcome of the administrative proceeding, the local prosecutor may file criminal charges in state court. Local prosecutors are often very cozy with local police, and most often defer to the police department’s determination unless there is a huge media outcry. There is no way for a citizen to “force” a prosecutor to file a criminal charge, but prosecutors are usually elected positions, and will respond to media pressure.
Lurking in the background is the U.S. Department of Justice, who can file federal criminal charges. Again, the Department of Justice is not bound by the local administrative proceedings nor the result of any state criminal trial. This is because the federal charge is different in nature than any state criminal charge- as opposed to an assault, manslaughter, or muder charge, the federal charge would be for violation of a citizen’s civil rights. The Department of Justice typically stays out of mix unless there has been a serious (real or perceived) miscarriage of justice. If you’ll recall, two of the four officers who were acquitted of state assault charges in the Rodney King beating were later convicted in Federal court of civil rights charges.
Finally, regardless of the outcome of any of these proceedings, a victim or victim’s family can hire a lawyer and sue for damages in either state or federal court. These lawsuits are very, very, very, difficult win, for a variety of reasons. Two of these reasons do not vary from state to state: (1) the public trusts the police, and (2) juries are much more conservative in awarding damages than they are perceived. The runaway jury is a myth. A 1995 U.S. Department of Justice study analyzing civil jury cases over a 12-month period in the nation’s 75 most populous counties found that juries awarded punitive damages in just 6 percent of all successful suits, and that approximately half of these punitive damage awards were for $50,000 or less.
In addition to the troubles persuading a jury on these types of cases, it is very difficult to get a case like this to trial. All states (and by extension, police departments) are vested with soveriegn immunity to some degree or another, which can preclude a state tort claim altogher. Federal claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 are available, but hard to prove, as one must demonstrate a pervasive policy within the department which led to the shooting. So while a big verdict against the individual, assetless officer might be possible, keeping the state on the hook is a chore.
My brother is a senior officer in the police force of the neighboring city. He has been a patrol officer, a vice officer, administrative chief of police and, now, by his own decision, chief of detectives. He has never fired his gun in the line of duty and has been on the force for over 20 years.
In a now famous police clip of two brothers in a blue suburban in a shoot out with cops, you see the driver get into the van and drive off once the other brother gets in. I wondered why the State Patrol officer who had a gun on him did not simply shoot his nasty butt away while the other officer was exchanging bullets with the other brother.
He was not allowed to. The one brother had drawn no weapon and the officer could not shoot him even though he was within 3 feet of him and grabbing at him as he got back in the seat of the van and started driving off. Why he did not shoot across him and blow the head off of the other brother who jumped back into the van, I still do not know. As a result, it took nearly a year before these two Aryan, seperationist, back woods white boys were tracked down in another state and arrested, then jailed.
The way I figure it, most members of violent gangs should be shot on sight, because if they have not killed or mutilated someone, they will but our laws don’t allow that.
The wild, cowboy image of an average American police officer is greatly over blown for Hollywood and, besides, we Americans like watching the bad guy get his innards blown out across the streets.
Cops who shoot are investigated, to determine if it was necessary, though they are not hauled before some investigative board and just need to fill out a report, especially if they did not hurt anyone. Cops firing guns to blow out tires just simply put it in their reports and shootings caught on camera are just explained in a little paper work.
It used to be that if a cop told you to halt or he would shoot, you stopped or he would drill you, not like today where you can run your ass off while the cop waves his gun about, unable to fire.
In a couple of our super maximum prisons, the armed wall guards will shoot to kill at any disturbance within the walls that falls within a narrow category.
My brother gave me a video police test about when to shoot, where you fired blanks at various criminal types on a TV screen, but you had to be sure that the guy was reaching for a gun and not a wallet before you fired and if you judged wrong, you killed an innocent or you got ‘shot.’ I killed a lot of innocent folks and got shot twice.