Policies and training key to managing law enforcement liability

Not a week goes by it seems without a headline-grabbing story about an incident involving law enforcement.

After a period of declining claims, there is an uptick in law enforcement liability activity around the country. Most of this activity centers on three major high liability areas that garner a great deal of media attention: pursuits/emergency vehicle operation, use of force and search-seizure-arrest. Municipal leaders need to pay special attention to these three areas and ensure their law enforcement personnel are properly trained in policy and procedure.

When pursuing claims against law enforcement, the plaintiff usually goes after the law enforcement agency because it has deeper pockets than the police officer. To accomplish this, they try to prove the law enforcement agency's policy, training or lack of supervision in some way contributed to the officer's alleged misconduct.
Typically, they bypass the state court system because of the caps on damages provided by the state Tort Claims Act. They try to bring the cases before a federal court where there are no caps on damages and the officer and municipality may both be held liable if the plaintiffs successfully prove their case. 

To avoid liability claims in general and keep from being front-page news, law enforcement agencies must make sure they have ongoing review of policies covering those areas of high liability risk, continually train their officers in those policies, and ensure the officers are being properly supervised and act in accordance with policy. 

The South Carolina Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund provides its members with comprehensive, up-to-date law enforcement policies that address both critical and noncritical tasks. The policies are available in the SCMIRF members-only area of the Municipal Association's website.

SCMIRF contracted with the Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute, a division of the Public Agency Training Council, to develop the model policies and to keep them current.

Agencies that have proper policies related to the high-risk critical tasks are less likely to have liability. Additionally, an agency that trains officers on the high-risk, critical tasks achieves a higher level of performance, while at the same time diminishes the liability of its officers, its supervisors and the agency itself.

LLRMI also developed a roll-call training calendar, a simple monthly training program for roll-call type training. The monthly lesson plans are displayed so that supervisors can conduct the predesigned and choreographed lesson plan for every officer. Each month focuses on a different critical task so that within a year's time, officers receive training in each critical task. Topics covered include use of force, emergency vehicle operation and arrest-search-seizure.

"The importance of training as it relates to policy cannot be overstated," said Heather Ricard, director of the Municipal Association's Risk Management Services.

Noted law enforcement risk management expert G. Patrick Gallagher shared, "Policy is only as effective as the training in the substance and requirements of that policy. If training is weak, unfocused or nonexistent, then the policy will not be followed. Training must cover the full range of tasks which officers are expected to perform."

"In addition to providing the model policies and calendars, SCMIRF offers several training sessions on law enforcement topics throughout the year for our members," explained Ricard. "We offer in-person classes as well as on-demand training through our LocalGovU Online Training Center."

Public safety is also one of the inaugural courses for the Municipal Association's Advanced Municipal Elected Officials Institute, scheduled for February 4. "Public Safety Policy and Administration" will focus on the elected official's leadership role and responsibilities related to public safety. Experienced public safety and municipal court practitioners will discuss police, fire and municipal court policies, best practices and operations. Elected officials who have completed the Municipal Elected Officials Institute are eligible to participate in the Advanced Institute.

The SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund is the property and liability program sponsored by the Municipal Association.