I originally posted this article in mid-2019.
Currently, there are a lot of very intelligent people working on / addressing the problem of police suicide. Just yesterday (6/12/19), the Chicago PD finished up a 2-day summit on the topic, which included over 100 mental health professionals from around the country. I wonder if they discussed holding municipalities / departments accountable for not providing suicide prevention training? According to PoliceOne.com, only about 10% of departments have a suicide prevention program in place.
As police leaders, WE have a moral obligation to provide suicide prevention / wellness training for our officers!
And now, maybe a legal obligation!
This paper examines the current state of wellness / suicide prevention training for police officers around the country and municipal liability as a result of failing to provide such training. This paper is intended to spark national dialogue about officer wellness / suicide prevention training and the responsibility that our municipalities shoulder.
Police training is governed by each state and the required hours of basic training and in-service training varies from state to state. In conjunction with state mandated training, many agencies require additional hours based on individual department needs and priorities. With any training topic, the overall cost of the training needs to be considered, i.e. instructor / program cost and the cost of ensuring the “road” is covered while officers attend the training.
Failure to Train – Officer Wellness / Suicide
Fact: Suicide is the number one killer of police officers.
As with victims with mental illness, is it feasible that a surviving family member (of an officer that committed suicide) could sue under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violation of their constitutional rights on the theory of failure to train? In essence, a § 1983 claim is based upon “if a concededly valid policy is unconstitutionally applied by a municipal employee, the city is liable if the employee has not been adequately trained and the constitutional wrong has been caused by that failure to train.”(1)
The landmark case in this area of law is City of Canton v. Harris, where the Supreme Court recognized the theory of failure-to-train liability as applied to law enforcement. (2) In that case, an individual had been arrested and denied first-aid treatment (3) She sued on the basis that her rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had been denied and that the police department had failed to train its officers in order to accommodate for an expected need.(4) The Court held that “the inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for § 1983 liability only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact.”(5)
The Court explained that in failure-to-train cases, they first look to “whether the training program was adequate; and if it is not,” they decide as to whether the inadequacy of the training program “can justifiably be said the represent city policy.”(6) While the court noted the improbability that a municipality would actually have an official policy of not training its employees, it explained that considering the duties and challenges officers face, if officers fail to receive appropriate training and the absence of such training is likely the result in violation of constitutional rights, then the municipality is deemed “to have been deliberately indifferent to the need.”(7) Additionally, the Court explained the particular difficulty of the fact-finder determining whether an injury would have been avoided had the “employee been trained under a program that was not deficient in the identified respect,” but ultimately concluded, “judge and jury, doing their respective jobs, will be adequate to the task.”(8) A fact-finder determining that an injury could have been avoided with adequate training would be a difficult proposition, but not impossible.
In the Board of Commissioners v. Brown, the Supreme Court held that an action must amount to deliberate indifference in so far as the municipality knew, or should have known, that a violation of a particular constitutional right would occur.(9) The Court previously discussed roughly the same standard in City of Canton v. Harris. There, the Court used law enforcement training for lethal force as an example and discussed the need to train officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force.(10) The Court concluded that this type of training “can be said to be ‘so obvious,’ that failure to do so could properly be characterized as ‘deliberate indifference’ to constitutional rights.(11) The Court goes onto say that this theory applies to Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) and it is estimated that only about 10% of officer encounters involve someone with a mental illness. If 10% equates to OBVIOUS, what does the #1 killer of police officers equate to? How obvious does it have to be?
I would argue that within the law enforcement community it is a known fact the suicide is the number one killer of law enforcement officers. So why wouldn’t the same rationale apply?
Another thought: Would the same theory apply to officers and their level of physical fitness, e.g. their ability to stay in a fight long enough to use other defensive tactics before resorting to deadly force?
In Donald R. Parker, et al. v. District of Columbia, Appellant, 850 F.2d 708 (D.C. Cir. 1988)
U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – 850 F.2d 708 (D.C. Cir. 1988)
Argued Nov. 16, 1987. Decided June 17, 1988
The Court stated:
“It is undisputed that Officer Hayes had no physical training for four years prior to the Parker incident. Indeed, he was off duty because of a fractured shoulder until just two months before the incident that gave rise to this lawsuit. Given Officer Hayes’ physical condition, it is not hard to fathom that his most effective method for subduing the objects of his pursuits would be the use of a firearm as opposed to the application of physical force. Officer Hayes simply was not in adequate physical shape. This condition posed a foreseeable risk of harm to others. We are persuaded that a fair-minded jury could have concluded that Officer Hayes’ conduct was the result of deliberate indifference on the part of the District with respect to the physical training of its police officers.”
- $400,000 in damage
- City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378,387 (1989).
- at 388.
- at 381-82.
- at 381-83.
- at 388
- at 390
- at 39
- Of Cnty. Comm’rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404 (1997)
(10)City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 389-393 (1989).
(11)Id. ; see also Gold v. City of Miami, 151 F.3d 1346, 1351-52 (11th Cir. 1998)