Deliberate Indifference To Realistic Training Needs: A Question Of Quality

By Missy O’Linn

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Canton v. Harris (Canton) decided that a governmental entity can be liable under Section 42 U.S.C.1983 for deliberate indifference to training needs of governmental employees. In the five years since that decision, failure to train allegations have become commonplace in civil rights lawsuits against law enforcement agencies. The battle rages with particular intensity in use of force cases and is frequently fought by experts on police training.

The facts of Canton were as follows: Geraldine Harris was arrested in April 1978, and transported to the police department in a “paddy wagon.” At the police station, Ms. Harris was found sitting on the floor of the paddy wagon and was asked if she needed medical attention, to which she responded that she wanted “Ronnie,” her son. During booking, Ms. Harris slumped to the floor twice and was eventually left sitting. No medical attention was summoned and she was released approximately one hour later and taken by an ambu¬lance (as requested by her family) to a hospital. Ms. Harris, diagnosed as suffering from several emotional ailments, stayed in the hospital for one week and received outpatient care for one year. Police department regulations authorized shift commanders to determine whether detainees require medical care, but shift commanders were not trained how to determine medical needs.

The Supreme Court concluded that “there are limited circumstances in which an allegation of a failure to train can be the basis for liability under section 1983.” Inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for 1983 liability where failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come in contact. Citing Monell v. New York Dept. of Social Services, the Court stated that the “policies (of deliberate indifference to training) must be the moving force behind the constitutional violations.”

The issues in failure to train cases are:

1) whether a training program is inadequate; and

2) whether the training inadequacy represents “city policy.” Under Canton, foresee ability of a particular constitutional violation is part of the analysis. Recurrent situations involving  potential danger to citizens’ constitutional rights (including use of force or the provision of medical care) are a strong basis for a failure to train claim.

Courts will focus on the adequacy of the training program in relation to tasks officers can typically be expected to perform:

“…It may happen that in light of the duties assigned to specific officers or employees, the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policy makers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need.”

It may seem contrary to common sense that a municipality will actually have a policy of not taking reasonable steps to train its employees. But if a department failed to provide training relative to shooting at fleeing felons, it is likely that the agency would be responsible for any injury such training deficiency caused.

Adequately trained officers occasionally make mistakes; the fact that they do says little about the training program. The Court stated that no municipal liability exists, nor should it, when an otherwise sound program is negligently administered on occasion, nor when it is shown that an injury or accident could have been avoided if the officer had better, more or different training.

Since Canton, a number of failure to train cases have been decided. An analysis of these decisions leads to the following conclusions. In all but the most egregious situations, it is still somewhat difficult for the plaintiffs’ bar to establish that a department was “deliberately indifferent” to training needs. However, as plaintiffs’ attorneys develop a better understanding of “state of the art” law enforcement training and as the pool of experts willing to testify about training standards grows, there will be increasing pressure to adopt more sophisticated training programs. A conflict may exist between an agency and its officers when the officers’ personal defense is that they did what they were trained to do and their course of action is deemed to be unconstitutional or even illegal.

To avoid such predicaments, departments should not allow in house instructors to rely on “the way we’ve always done it.” Policy makers and instructors who are unfamiliar with in custody death studies are likely to be taught that research in federal court. It is beneficial for departments to stay on top of technological developments relative to investigative techniques, stopping fleeing vehicles and restraining combative subjects. State of the art training, such as realistic, hands on defensive tactics training, driving and firearms decision making courses should be part of in¬-service programs and recruits should be sent to academies which provide quality programs.

The quality of training received by officers will be closely scrutinized, particularly in use of force litigation. Typically the battle is one of experts on either side attempting to sell the jury.  Discovery demands in a failure to train case will often include: the training records of the involved officers; any reports and investigations of similar incidents; lesson plans and visual aids used for training; evaluations and discipline records; tests given and test scores; and any complaints, claims or lawsuits arising out of similar circumstances.

Historically, the Law Enforcement community has been deficient in organizing and analyzing data regarding officers’ field training. The plaintiffs’ bar typically does more analysis of use of force reports and incidents involving alleged improprieties. The quality of training should be a concern long before someone is hurt or someone threatens suit. However, changes in training often only occur because officers are killed or seriously injured, or because somebody sues the department and wins not because we were looking for better or more effective ways of
doing the job.

Realistic defensive tactics training should be adopted by departments for a number of reasons. Special emphasis should be put on quality training.

Realistic training in defensive tactics:

1) gives officers confidence in their ability to use lower levels of force

2) enhances the effectiveness of less than lethal force options

3) decreases the potential for accidental injury to officers and suspects

4) enhances instructors’ ability to effectively evaluate officers’ performance under stress in making use-of-force decisions and effectuating arrests; and

5) reduces an agency’s vulnerability to allegations of deliberate indifference to training needs.