The law grants immense power to police officers. Under certain circumstances, they have the authority to detain you, to arrest you, and to search your person, your home, your car, and your belongings. In some situations, they even have the right to use deadly force against you.

Most of us would like to think that police officers exercise these powers appropriately at all times. In reality, however, police officers make poor decisions about when and how to exert their power. Those failings result from factors as diverse as bias, fear, stress, anger, inattention, and recklessness. No matter what influences their actions, however, police officers who make bad decisions about using deadly force may end up taking an innocent life.

In the wake of a police officer’s use of deadly force against a citizen, police departments routinely promise to “conduct a thorough investigation” to determine whether the officer was justified in ending someone’s life. Despite assurances that the investigation will uncover the truth, however, the results too often seem more like a whitewash.

In this blog post, we discuss why you cannot trust police internal investigations into the use of deadly force, and why, instead, you should contact an experienced Philadelphia police brutality attorney if a police officer makes the tragic decision to take the life of your loved one.

The Hollow Promise of Police Investigating Police

In an ideal world, police officers and their departments would own up to their own mistakes and misdeeds. That, however, is not the world in which we live. Here in the real world, law enforcement officers and leadership officials are likely to prioritize upholding police prestige rather than seeking justice. Which is to say, they will try to rationalize, minimize, cover-up, and move-on without being held accountable.

Now, don’t get us wrong; we are not saying law enforcement officers are bad people. Just the opposite: The vast majority of them are decent, hard-working public servants who want to do the right thing. Just like anyone, they love their kids, care about their communities, and want to get home safe and sound at the end of every shift. By and large, they never plan or expect to end an innocent person’s life in the line of duty.

Instead, what we are saying is that because police are human beings, they cannot be trusted to hold themselves accountable for their own tragic mistakes and reckless actions. That is not how human nature works. Police department leadership, faced with the death of an innocent civilian at the hands of an officer under its command, and with the public outrage that usually accompanies that kind of tragedy, cannot remain objective in an investigation.

Too many forces push a department in the direction of favoritism and cover-up; an inherent, pro-law enforcement bias, a policemen’s view of the world borne of years on the job, an oversensitivity to internal department politics, an always-tense relationship with powerful police unions, and a natural defensiveness in the face of community anger, to name just a few.

Instead, no matter the assurances police leaders try to give the public, a police department’s internal investigation of an officer’s use of deadly force in the line of duty will almost always give the police officer the benefit of the doubt. It will likely favor protecting fellow officers over exposing uncomfortable truths. It will likely respond to pressure from police unions. It will likely try to find a reason to blame the victim. And, in the final analysis, it will probably present a view of the events that led to a tragic death of an innocent citizen in the light most favorable to the police officer and his or her actions.

Would you trust that sort of investigation? Neither would we.

Alternatives to Police Internal Investigations

Fortunately, police investigations of officer use of deadly force do not represent the only game in town. Other entities can, and frequently do, conduct parallel, alternative investigations in these tragic situations. Three of the most common are:

  • Federal agencies. In some circumstances, a federal law enforcement agency, such as the FBI, may conduct its own investigation of an officer’s use of deadly force when the incident may have represented a violation of federal law. Federal law enforcement investigations may represent a more objective, neutral analysis of the facts surrounding the use of deadly force. However, these investigations still suffer from the potential for a pro-law enforcement bias and can take years to complete.
  • Public watchdog groups. Some organizations with missions of holding the government accountable may also conduct investigations into an officer’s use of deadly force. These groups have an even greater likelihood of taking an objective view of events. However, they too have some drawbacks, such as narrowly-drawn mission statements that do not allow them to conduct a complete, wide-ranging investigation and a frequent lack of funding that hampers their ability to truly get to the bottom of the facts.
  • Civil rights lawsuits filed by victims’ families. In these cases, lawyers for the families of those wrongfully killed by police can discover and present evidence in court and fight for financial compensation. Neither measure can bring back a loved one, but the former can expose and publicize systemic problems in a police department while the latter can punish wrongdoing by an officer and the department that employs him.

Families mourning the loss of a loved one in an incident involving a police officer’s use of deadly force can take some—but only some—comfort that these parallel, alternative investigations may help uncover the truth. However, the conduct of these investigations still remains out of the family’s control and still risks suffering from bias and incompleteness.

How a Civil Rights Attorneys Can Help

In the aftermath of a tragic death resulting from law enforcement’s use of deadly force, the mourning family of an innocent victim often benefits from the guidance of a civil rights attorney. Here is how civil rights attorneys serve the needs of their clients.

Navigating Investigations

Just because you cannot trust a police internal investigation after a tragic incident involving the use of deadly force does not necessarily mean you should ignore the investigation altogether. For one thing, the “official” investigators may want to speak with you about your loved one. Should you agree to participate (or insist on participating) in an investigation that you are reasonably sure will amount to little more than a victim-blaming whitewash?

We would understand if your first instinct would be to resist. However, believe it or not, this can turn out to be a more difficult question than you may initially think. Fortunately, a civil rights lawyer has the experience and street-smarts to understand and evaluate what a grieving family has to gain, and to lose, from the decision of whether to participate in an official investigation of a tragic police use of force against a loved one.

The lawyer can also help the family navigate the outcome of that decision, whether it means guiding a family through participating in the investigation or explaining to officials and the public why the family has refused to participate.

Sorting Through Official Investigative Findings

Civil rights attorneys commit their careers to fighting on behalf of citizens who have fallen victim to abuses of government power. Over many years of law practice, they develop a sharp sense of the limitations of “official” and alternative investigations. Experienced attorneys know the clues to look for in “final reports” that tell them when an investigation has left out an important fact, ignored critical evidence, or shaded the truth in favor of a preferred storyline.

In other words, civil rights attorneys know how to read not just the lines, but also “between the lines” of an investigative report to reveal its strengths and weaknesses, and to tease out information that others might miss.

Conducting Their Own Investigations

Civil rights attorneys also have the hard-earned know-how to mount their own investigations of civil rights abuses. In many cases involving police use of deadly force, this investigation will be the only one to dig deep enough into the facts to uncover the truth. It will, almost certainly, be the only one to prioritize the grieving family’s legal and personal interests, instead of the interests of police leaders, politicians, unions, or interest groups.

Civil rights attorneys frequently work with their own trusted group of investigators and researchers, which ensures that they receive the type of accurate and detailed information that other investigations might not want to hear.

Taking Legal Action

Finally, civil rights attorneys have the legal knowledge necessary to analyze the facts of a potential violation in light of civil rights laws that give families the right to seek justice, accountability, and compensation through the courts.

As citizens, our civil rights are guaranteed under the United States Constitution and the constitutions of the states in which we live. These documents define our relationship with our federal, state, and local governments, including what police officers can, and cannot, do in the official exercise of their duties. A police officer who wrongfully uses deadly force while acting “under color of law” violates the protections afforded to each and every one of us as citizens.

The law allows us, as citizens, to seek justice, accountability, and damages for violations of those rights through a lawsuit. However, it takes skill and experience to craft a lawsuit that will succeed. That is why families of victims of police violence need the counsel of a seasoned civil rights lawyer to prepare their cases and to pursue them in court.

Helping a Family Manage Public Attention

Civil rights lawsuits tend to draw scrutiny from the press and public. Families often find themselves thrust into the spotlight, unprepared for and overwhelmed by the attention, some of it positive and some of it negative. A civil rights attorney helps families who are still grieving the loss of a loved one at the hands of a police officer to navigate this sudden publicity, to protect the families’ privacy and legal rights. What a family says and does in the wake of a tragic accident involving police force can affect not just the family, but their entire community as well. Trust in an experienced civil rights attorney to help you make the best decisions during such a difficult time.

What to Do After a Police Use of Deadly Force Incident

Few incidents involving the police and the public have the potential to spark more outrage and unrest than a wrongful use of deadly force against a civilian. The actions grieving families and friends take in the hours, days, and weeks after a tragic deadly force incident can affect the memory of their loved ones, their legal rights, and the wellbeing of their communities. No one can prepare for the stress and trauma of losing a loved one to a police officer’s abuse of power.

However, if you find yourself in that extremely difficult position, here are two tips to help you protect yourself, your family, your community, and your rights.

  • Contact a civil rights attorney immediately. You have no time to lose; every minute that passes without experienced legal counsel by your side represents a lost opportunity to obtain justice, to ensure accountability, and to protect your loved one’s memory and your own legal rights. Few, if any, legal matters call for you to have a skilled lawyer advising you immediately as much as a police use of deadly force incident. Do not wait. Call a lawyer right away to help you manage the spotlight of public attention and official investigations.
  • Do not speak with anyone else until you have consulted a civil rights attorney. In particular, do not speak with the press or a police investigator without first consulting an attorney. Unfair as it is, you—the surviving family member of a victim of police violence—will be judged on what you do during one of the most tragic moments of your life. That is the reality of the horrific situation you are in. Speaking with the press or the police without first understanding your rights and the implications of what you may say puts your rights at risk and hands the power to others to shape the storyline of your loved one’s death.

We hope that you never find yourself in the tragic situation of mourning the loss of a loved one whose life has been taken by a police officer’s abuse of power. If you do, however, then contact an attorney right away.

The Zeiger Firm
1500 John F. Kennedy Blvd, Suite 620A,
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 546-0340

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.