Surviving Litigation Through Resilience
By Vincent M. McAteer III, M.S.
It is the close of a remarkable shift. You have completed all your reports and look forward to some well-earned rest after a challenging but fulfilling tour of duty. Your emotions are riding high, and you feel like you genuinely make a difference in your community. It is a great day to be a cop.
Unexpectedly, you receive a phone call from your legal department on the way home. The bad news is delivered like a door slamming shut in your face — you are about to be named in a lawsuit.
Getting sued is a troubling event for the officer, their agency, and, potentially, their family. Law enforcement lawsuits are sometimes well-publicized, and officers may isolate themselves from their peers and feel ashamed. In addition to the extreme amount of stress they inevitably feel, many officers find themselves questioning their choice of profession.
However, all is not lost. Opportunities abound to assist officers and educate them on what to expect and how to find resilience during an incredibly stressful time.
The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics is the “preface to the mission and commitment law enforcement agencies make to the public they serve.”1 While it stands as a general guide of conduct, the code is interspersed with words and phrases that form the backbone of serving our constituents fairly, safely, and objectively while maintaining the sacred public trust. An officer needs to look no further than the Code of Ethics to adequately serve the community.
Captain McAteer serves with the Cranston, Rhode Island, Police Department and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 282.
An educated police officer makes better decisions. Never stop learning, and always look for opportunities to learn from peers. Education could come from traditional sources, like department-sanctioned training, advanced degrees, or law enforcement seminars. Learning also comes from informal reviews following critical incidents, such as high-stress vehicle stops. There is always an opportunity to examine our actions and find ways to improve.
In 2018, approximately 61.5 million U.S. residents had at least one contact with police.2 Each of those encounters carried risk. As a profession, we should pay close attention to our police reports and document each incident clearly and thoroughly. Aside from our notes, a police report will be one of the only ways to refresh our memories. Never discount supervisory inclusion. Notify a supervisor if you feel like an incident must be documented outside of general procedure.
Law enforcement strives to maintain the highest ethical standards and make informed decisions, but, unfortunately, even good cops get sued. If the unthinkable happens, do not try to handle it alone. Find someone you trust to help you navigate this turbulent time. Perhaps it is a person who has gone through the process or even a fellow police officer. You will want to talk to someone who knows what it is like to be a member of law enforcement and the effort it takes to make it into the profession.
It is also advisable to engage in your department’s various Employee Assistance Program (EAP) resources. Use this time to understand what is happening and acknowledge the emotional effect. Reach out within the EAP framework and find a clinician. This will provide an opportunity to talk out your emotions with a mental health professional and discover ways to help minimize stress.
When I — and perhaps you — attended the police academy, there were no classes in the civil litigation process. Today, there are government publications and other resources to help you learn about how a lawsuit progresses through the legal system. For example:
- The United States Courts explains the process of a federal civil lawsuit.3
- The Bureau of Justice Statistics outlines the federal civil justice system with a flowchart, statistics, and definitions.4
- The United States District Court of Massachusetts offers a step-by-step guide to filing a civil action.5
Your municipality’s attorney will be your primary point of contact. This person will keep you abreast of the timeline and critical issues. They will also prepare you for deposition or courtroom testimony.
“Opportunities abound to assist officers and educate them on what to expect and how to find resilience during an incredibly stressful time.”
Filing a Complaint
A federal civil lawsuit begins with the plaintiff filing a complaint, which is then served to the defendant. This document describes the plaintiff’s damages or injury; explains how the defendant caused the harm; and asks the court to order relief, either through monetary compensation or an end to the conduct.6
Preparing the Case
After initiating a federal legal action, the long journey of preparing the case begins. Preparation is important for both the plaintiff and the defendant. It generally involves critical processes, including discovery, during which both parties provide witnesses and documentation expected to be referenced during the case. Additionally, representation may file several motions that seek to clarify issues related to evidence and procedure. The parties involved will also wish to depose witnesses during discovery. During a deposition, both sides will call witnesses to answer questions under oath about the case. This step is conducted for attorneys to gather facts and information that can better prepare them to represent their clients at trial.7
In many civil cases, the parties involved choose to negotiate a settlement. This is generally done to circumvent the expensive and arduous road of a trial. There are several settlement options that parties may agree to, such as arbitration, mediation, and other types of dispute resolution that negate the need for a courtroom proceeding. If a settlement cannot be reached, the court will initiate a trial.8
A civil trial is conducted much like a criminal proceeding. Witness testimony, information, and evidence will be presented according to the judge’s application of the rules of the court. Additionally, a court stenographer and clerk will keep an official record of the trial, including testimony, documents, photographs, and other items introduced into the proceedings. Each side will have ample time to close their presentations to the judge and jury.9
If the plaintiff successfully convinces the court that they have been harmed, as shown by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., more likely than not), a determination of the damages will be made, and an amount is calculated that each defendant must pay. The court may also order other types of relief, such as a declaration of the plaintiff's legal rights.10 There are generally time restrictions on the process, but it may take months to resolve.
The sacred process that courts follow is designed with justice in mind, and it can be extremely overwhelming for anyone, police officer or not.
“Find your way toward positivity, and, when appropriate, look for the good in every call for service.”
If you are not satisfied with your representation and their ability to advocate for you, it may be possible to retain your own counsel. Do not forget that your agency’s attorney has primary responsibility to the municipality that hired them. Consider bringing someone on board who understands the intricacies of police work and your integrity, perspective, and future in law enforcement.
The litigation journey is long and stressful. You may question your motives, distrust coworkers, and resent the public you serve. Additionally, you may avoid any community or workplace interaction out of fear that it might result in another lawsuit. This apprehension is expected following the stress and trauma of litigation.
Resiliency means effectively coping with and recovering from adversity, trauma, or stress. It helps people bounce back from setbacks, maintain well-being during challenging times, and adapt to changing circumstances. Building resiliency is important for personal and professional growth because it enhances the ability to adapt and learn when faced with adversity.11
Find your way toward positivity, and, when appropriate, look for the good in every call for service. Return to your reasons for being a police officer.
If you are named in a lawsuit, harness the support of those around you to build resilience and find the best path forward. Most officers experience involvement in a civil case at some point in their law enforcement journey, and it is rarely career-ending. It is up to us to normalize the conversation surrounding litigation and develop strategies to mitigate shame and isolation during such a difficult time.
Disclaimer: The content of this article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice or a substitute for professional counsel. It may not reflect the most current legal developments in state and federal courts and may not be applicable in all jurisdictions. Readers are strongly encouraged to seek the advice of a qualified attorney for any specific legal questions or issues.
“If you are named in a lawsuit, harness the support of those around you to build resilience and find the best path forward.”
Captain McAteer can be reached at email@example.com.
1 “Law Enforcement Code of Ethics,” Resources, International Association of Chiefs of Police, accessed October 30, 2023, https://www.theiacp.org/resources/law-enforcement-code-of-ethics.
2 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2018 – Statistical Tables, Erika Harrell and Elizabeth Davis (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020), https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/contacts-between-police-and-public-2018-statistical-tables.
3 “Civil Cases,” Types of Cases, United States Courts, accessed November 1, 2023, https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/types-cases/civil-cases.
4 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, The Federal Civil Justice System (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1987), https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/fcjs.pdf.
5 United States District Court, District of Massachusetts, Step by Step: A Simple Guide to Filing a Civil Action in the United States District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston: United States District Court, District of Massachusetts, 2020), https://www.mad.uscourts.gov/general/pdf/StepByStepEnglish.pdf.
6 “Civil Cases.”
11 American Psychological Association, “Building Your Resilience,” last updated February 1, 2020, https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience/building-your-resilience.