COMMENTARY: Lessons from suing police

During my 45-year career as a civil rights attorney, I sued hundreds of police, sheriff deputies and other officers around Texas, as well as law enforcement agencies. Many of the cases dealt with excessive force against minority people.

The police-lawsuit part of my career began with suing the McAllen police, which culminated in a 1981 class-action settlement after a string of jury wins against individual officers. Through an ironic twist of events, we discovered that the McAllen department had a series of videos of cops beating up young Hispanic men at the police station. This happened during the night shift, the “C-Shift.” Equally repulsive, the cops would check out the videos to show at parties. They called themselves the “C-Shift Animals” and, as typical of police, had formed their own subculture.

The brutal videos went viral and were shown around the country, in Mexico, and as far away as France. We settled the class action, requiring more and better training and a citizens’ review board. As I will explain in a bit, I no longer believe training and citizen oversight are the answer.

Institutionalized racism coursed through almost all the cases I handled. Two suits keep coming back to me these days as emblematic.

One involved a young Hispanic high school boy, who was out shooting cans in a gulley with some friends one night, when a group of Austin police charged onto the scene, yelling and screaming at the kids. The boy, panicking, ran but a cop shot him in the back and killed him.

The other case, thanks to a security camera video from a nearby building, showed an Anglo Austin officer slugging my African American client so hard that it lifted him high off the ground and sent him to the emergency room.

The young man was walking near Sixth Street on Juneteenth and made an unfavorable comment to his friend about police that the officer, standing nearby, heard and retaliated. As typical, the lying cop filed police assault charges against my client.

Over the years, conservative federal courts have made it increasingly difficult to hold police accountable, conjuring up the doctrine of qualified immunity to give the police incredible protection. The test is not what a reasonable cop would do in a situation, but whether any other case had happened in similar circumstances that would have put the officer on notice that his or her conduct was unconstitutional.

Likewise, courts have made it virtually impossible to sue a law enforcement agency for the misdeeds of an officer, no matter how egregious the misdeeds or use of deadly force.

Fortunately, many cases went to mediation. Cities and politicians preferred that over bad trial publicity and risking an adverse verdict. The settlements involved monetary compensation and more training. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which I directed at the time, litigated police cases with an eye toward systemic reform and always insisted on more and better training for that purpose.

I no longer believe that more training works in and of itself. I have talked to too many trainers who have related that police don’t take compelled training well or seriously. More training became a way of fooling ourselves that it would yield institutional change, but it did not. Training is immediately reshaped and undermined when the police step back into their subculture and back out onto the streets; and history repeats itself.

What will create change is holding supervisors accountable for any officer who uses excessive force, escalates an encounter, or discriminates under that supervisor’s command.

The supervisor becomes liable for the individual officer’s conduct, racist behavior and nonimplementation of training, I had such discussions with Chief Art Acevedo in Austin and with San Antonio Chief William McManus.

They agreed in principle but went little further.

The solution to systemic police abuse and changing the police subculture is not in the courts, but in the streets and political offices.

James C. Harrington is the founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project.