Expert says gap between law, perceptions challenges police

Jack Ryan, a former police officer who is now an attorney advising and training police departments, speaks at a Municipal Association of South Carolina gathering Thursday.

City and town officials should ensure their police policies are up to date, but they also should appreciate that when officers use force, there can be a gap between what the public thinks is OK and what the courts say is legal.

Those were two big pieces of advice offered to more than 100 South Carolina mayors and council members Thursday by Jack Ryan, a former police officer who currently serves as an attorney with the Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute.

His address, “Law Enforcement in Trying Times,” came as the nation is grappling with outrage over videotaped incidents of police officers killing civilians and grief over five Dallas police officers shot and killed last week.

Ryan, who worked for more than 20 years in the Providence, R.I., police force, currently trains officers and serves as an expert witness in cases of officers’ use of deadly force. He said he usually works with about 30 cases annually, “but I weighed in on 64 cases last year.”

He did not discuss in detail the recent police incidents that have dominated the news but showed an older video clip of officers chasing a car from Arkansas into Tennessee. They originally tried to stop the car because of a headlight out, but a chase ensued. Eventually officers fired at the car 15 times after the driver attempted to back up during a second stop. The driver and passenger were killed.

“How many thought that one looked good?” Ryan said of the tape, as the elected officials murmured. “I didn’t think it looked good. How about shooting as he’s driving away?”

Ryan said the nation’s highest courts have upheld officers’ right to use force, but added, “There’s a disconnect between public expectations and the legal standard.”

Ryan also talked about how police should try to build social capital by interacting and helping people in different ways, such as an incident in New Hampshire where officers helped an autistic child enjoy a playground.

He told a story of an officer who captured a suspect after a foot chase but lost his $125 flashlight during the pursuit. When the suspect said he wished he could buy the officer another flashlight, the officer stupidly drove the suspect to an ATM and let him withdraw the amount before putting him in jail.

Ryan said the officer could have faced a robbery charge, but the suspect declined to give a statement or press charges. Asked why, the suspect said, “This officer is a good officer. He always treats me with respect,” Ryan said, adding the officer faced a disciplinary suspension but no criminal charge.

“He had social capital,” Ryan said of the officer. “We need to find ways to develop social capital.”

Meanwhile, the number of incidents in which law enforcement officers kill civilians is unclear, with estimates ranging from about 400 a year to 965, Ryan said.

And the rules can change quickly, making it vital that police departments stay current with their training policies.

He explained how an officer’s use of a Taser in Pinehurst, N.C., led to a legal precedent in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes South Carolina, that prevents officers from using Tasers unless they’re in immediate danger.

Ryan said city and town leaders should make sure their officers are well trained — or it could hurt them in civil court and, ultimately, in their municipal budgets.

“The worst thing that can happen in a law enforcement case is if the plaintiff’s attorney can prove your officer did something wrong,” he said, “but it gets a lot worse if they can prove your agency was the moving force behind what the officers did.”

Holly Hill Mayor William Johnson said Ryan’s talk was helpful, particularly his emphasis on updating policies and procedures. “He said some things that really got my attention,” Johnson said. “It is our job to know. If we have court cases, ignorance is not going to save us.”

More than 630 mayors, council members and staff from at least 131 South Carolina cities and towns are in Charleston this week for the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s annual meeting, which runs through Saturday at Charleston Place. About 600 other vendors, speakers, spouses and other governmental officials also are attending the event, which is so big that only three hotels in the state have conference space large enough to handle it.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.