Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

Editorial: SC police need to learn from lawsuit losses. That starts with paying attention

Tracey Williams (copy)

SC police rarely learn any lessons from encounters with the public that result in lawsuits, because they rarely pay any attention to the lawsuits, or the settlement that state lawyers agree to. Michael Pronzato/Staff

When a medical practice loses or settles a lawsuit alleging malpractice, you can bet it’s going to examine what it did wrong and how it can make sure that doesn’t happen again. If the rate of losses climbs by 50 percent in just five years, it’s probably going to double down on those questions and make changes.

The same is true for any business that comes out badly in a lawsuit alleging problems with the product or service it sells, whether it’s a car manufacturer or a plumber or a hotel.

But that’s apparently not how it works with S.C. police agencies.

High-profile shootings in the past five years have sparked a national conversation on what happens when police cross the line and what the public deserves as compensation. In South Carolina, that attitude shift has translated to more lawsuits against law enforcement resulting in settlements, a Post and Courier analysis of claims data found.

The Post and Courier’s Fleming Smith reports that even as the number of settlements in police-misconduct lawsuits has jumped 50 percent in just five years, “police rarely review their practices or policies based on such complaints, and the officers involved often don’t know how a lawsuit against them is being handled.”

Echoing experts in the field, officials at many Lowcountry police agencies said the lawsuits go straight to attorneys with the county, city or town they work for, and from there on to the state Insurance Reserve Fund, whose sole job is to minimize insurance losses.

In North Charleston, for example, the department doesn’t look into allegations of wrongdoing by its officers unless someone files a separate complaint with internal affairs. The one exception was in the city of Charleston, where two city attorneys routinely investigate allegations raised in lawsuits and meet weekly with police officials to discuss policies, training and risk management.

Now, it’s true that even the best police officers following the best procedures can make honest mistakes, and we don’t want police to be cowed into not doing their jobs by fear of litigation. It’s true too that lawyers often recommend settling cases even when their clients did nothing wrong, because the cost of litigation will be higher than the settlement, or because they worry that jurors will be swayed more by emotion than by fact. And lawyers call the shots on litigation involving police.

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But it’s too easy to use cost-of-litigation arguments as an excuse to overlook real problems. And the idea that officials wouldn’t even review lawsuits against their officers is deeply disturbing. How are they supposed to know whether their officers did anything wrong or whether they need to change their recruitment, training or policies if they ignore lawsuits — particularly the ones their lawyers decide to settle?

In addition to playing see-no-evil, hear-no-evil with lawsuits, a big part of the problem is that many police agencies take the position that as long as their officers didn’t commit a crime, there’s no problem. Which is insane.

Imagine if  businesses took that position. There’s rarely anyone who can be held criminally responsible when a manufacturer produces planes that fall from the sky or cars whose brakes don’t work, but the manufacturers still have to correct the problem if they want to remain in business.

This might be one of those cases where those in the government-is-always-the-problem crowd have a point when they argue that government doesn’t have to worry about being driven out of  business by competitors, and it doesn’t have to worry about how much money it spends.

Just as police ought to discipline and in some cases fire officers who behave recklessly or abusively regardless of whether they’re charged with a crime, police ought to look into every lawsuit, or at least every lawsuit that results in a payment. In some cases, it will turn out that the lawyers did in fact make a purely mathematical calculation to settle. In a lot of cases, they’ll learn that changes need to be made to the way they recruit, train, discipline or reward officers, or in their engagement policies.

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