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San Bernardino has as part of its latest plan to merge out of bankruptcy protection, a request to shield individual police officers from liability in police brutality and excessive force lawsuits. Is this just? Should the cities be held responsible for the actions of their employees? Under the law the answer is a resounding and long held yes. The legal doctrine of respondent superior makes the employer liable for the actions of their employees absent rare circumstances. One of the exceptions would be the criminal acts of the employee. However, if a police officer violates a person’s civil rights or uses excessive force, should not the employer be held liable for this? The city, county or state trained and selected the officer. As has been seen recently, various departments have tolerated excessive force, racism and corruption. If the department is not held accountable, how does change occur? The bankruptcy laws that shield these individuals and/or entities have rarely been tested.
Should entities and individuals be allowed a “free pass” claiming they cannot afford to pay for damages caused by their employees or, should the individual officers be held financially accountable themselves? Officers are often forced to make split second and life changing decisions for themselves, for the entities they represent and for individuals with whom they interact. Should justice (as the statute implies) be blind and treat all equally? Unfortunately, this is a proverbial pipe dream only. This is a wonderful example of what should be, not what is. We have been exposed to minorities being shot multiple times by officers when they were unarmed and posed no immediate threat to the public and/or the officers themselves.
Should officers be held personally liable and have their assets taken in cases if they are found to be liable? Will this serve the ends of better police training, better justice? Or, will it just be an excuse for the police to turn a blind eye and not get involved in situations where they might have to be placed in situations that could lead to liability? Do bankruptcy laws need to be clarified so all judges and entities have guidance on this issue in the future? Is allowing an entity escaping liability due to bankruptcy furthering the policies of society which demands (allegedly) let the guilty be punished?