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Common-sense lawsuit protection: Saying we're sorry

In lesser incidents, a prompt show of 'civility or kindness' for the aggrieved party may soothe ruffled feathers enough to keep things from escalating into vengeful legal action

Some lawsuits against officers and agencies could be avoided by simple, common sense apologies, in the opinion of police attorney and former street cop Laura Scarry, who has successfully defended scores of departments and LEOs in civil actions during her 16 years on the job.

“We sometimes make mistakes,” she says. “We break into the wrong house on a drug raid or shoot the family dog in the hyped-up chaos at a domestic, or lose control and drive across someone’s yard in a pursuit. Sometimes the best legal strategy is to own up to our error and say we’re sorry.”

She makes clear that she’s not talking in this context about major use-of-force incidents where lawsuits are a near-inevitability, like officer-involved shootings. There the stakes are potentially too high for any admission of culpability outside the legal venue.

But in lesser incidents, a prompt show of “civility or kindness” for the aggrieved party may soothe ruffled feathers enough to keep things from escalating into vengeful legal action.

“Replace the busted door with an even better door, pay the vet bills for the wounded pet, give them a little gift certificate to a local restaurant — and throw in a bouquet of roses in the process,” she advises.

Departments may fear that any conciliatory gesture will be seen by the recipient as a “gotcha” and itself encourage a lawsuit.

“But even if an action is filed, how sympathetic is the plaintiff going to look if the police have already tried to make up for the mistake?” she asks. “In my experience, most jurors usually do care about the police, and a well-timed apology that’s on the record makes it easier for them to be supportive. It can also make a good ‘feel-good’ story for the media.

“Public relations can be very important in matters like these. Agencies shouldn’t be so overly concerned about civil liability that they don’t do the right thing. If apologizing in some relatively little matter doesn’t prevent a lawsuit it may at least soften the blow of one.”

Any apology should come quickly, verbally or in writing, from an agency spokesperson or from command-level personnel, she believes. “There are no firm guidelines on when or how it should be made,” she says. “It’s a matter of weighing the circumstances and applying some common sense to the situation.”

And don’t negate the benefit of a healing mea culpa by needlessly reverting to bureaucratic defensiveness in virtually the same breath. In mentioning the value of apologies during a presentation at an ILEETA training conference, Scarry cited the self-defeating experience of one Midwestern department.

After an officer with that agency shot a family’s dog while crossing their backyard, the department voluntarily paid the veterinarian bills, totaling $900 — “A wonderful PR move,” in Scarry’s view.

Indeed, the family’s attorney said his clients were appreciative of “the responsible behavior” of the agency.

But then the department stubbornly refused a freedom-of-information request from the family for a copy of various policies relevant to the shooting. “What they wanted was essentially public-record information anyway,” Scarry says. “And the department stalled them for a year and a half.”

Finally the family did what the police had hoped to avoid in the first place — filed a lawsuit.

Laura Scarry, a partner in the law firm DeAno & Scarry LLC with offices in Chicago and Wheaton, Ill., can be reached at: lscarry@deanoandscarry.com or at: (630) 690-2800.

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