$97 million verdict has big lessons

The town of Cottageville. (Dave Munday/Staff)

BY MULLINS McLEOD

America was founded on the basic principle that individual rights are sacred, inalienable. The Declaration of Independence boldly proclaimed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident ... " In order to secure these rights citizens entrusted power to law enforcement officers. In colonial days, communities policed themselves with volunteer watch groups and constables who were chosen by the townspeople. There was a natural reluctance to give power to state sanctioned police departments because citizens feared the power would be abused and individual constitutional rights would be violated. Edmund Burke, whom many view as the founder of modern conservatism, proclaimed: "The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse."

This early reluctance is evidenced by the fact the first state-sanctioned police department wasn't created in this country until 1854 when the Boston Police Department was formed. During the 20th century, populations grew and so did the need to have professional, for- hire police officers. The mission of police departments in the 20th century remains the mission of police departments today: preserve and protect. Citizens in America have been willing to give law enforcement officers the tools they need to keep themselves safe and to preserve and protect our lives and our property. With the advent of technology, computers, etc. policing standards have improved in the 21st century. While the mission remains the same, accomplishing the mission has never been so attainable.

Some may view last week's verdict against the Town of Cottageville and Officer Randall Price as having derived from a group of jurors who are anti-law enforcement. I cannot speak for the jury, but I would respectfully submit it was the exact opposite. The jury heard evidence that the Town of Cottageville encourages their officers to bring their own firearms and their own handcuffs to work because it saves the town money. The jury heard that the Cottageville Police Department provides virtually no training or supervision for their officers regarding basic police tactics, much less the use of deadly force. In addition, the Cottageville Police does virtually no background investigation before hiring officers despite the known, obvious risks of placing this responsibility in the hands of someone who is unfit for law enforcement.

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. was the seventh longest serving member of the United States Supreme Court. With regard to the need for towns like Cottageville to train their officers in the use of deadly force he stated: "City policymakers know to a moral certainty that their police officers will be required to arrest fleeing felons. The City has armed its officers with firearms, in part to allow them to accomplish this task. Thus, the need to train officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force can be said to be so obvious that a failure to do so could be properly characterized as deliberate indifference to constitutional rights."

The lawyers representing the defendants praised the jury for their attentiveness during the trial. The jury was educated and focused. One juror had a family member who is in law enforcement. The lawyer for the Town of Cottageville, a former U.S. attorney, told the jury that in over 53 years of practicing law they were the most attentive jury he had ever appeared before. Some jurors took over 100 pages of notes during the nine-day trial.

The size of the jury's verdict was an indictment of the way the Cottageville Police Department does business as well as an indictment of Officer Price's conduct. Had simple, straightforward police standards been followed, Bert Reeves would be alive today. Instead, his two innocent children have suffered the worst form of loss - human loss.

The best way to support law enforcement is to make an example of bad law enforcement. The best way to protect our own rights is to stand up for our neighbors when their rights have been violated. If as a community we do not maintain justice, then justice will not maintain us.

It is my and the Reeves family's sincere hope that last week's verdict will begin a debate regarding whether the Cottageville Police Department should be abolished in favor of a satellite, community policing office run by the Colleton County Sheriff's Office. The residents of Cottageville are good, honest people who want to earn a decent wage, be with their families and live in peace.

W. Mullins McLeod, Jr., represented the Reeves family in their lawsuit against Cottageville.