Social Media’s Impact on Incidents Involving Police Use of Deadly Force

By Denise Johnson | October 13, 2016

In an exclusive interview with Claims Journal, Brian Gainer, a presenter at this year’s annual International Association of Claim Professionals’ conference held recently in California, discussed the issues that surround a high profile event like the 2014 deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

Gainer, a partner and chairman of the Municipal Liability Practice Group with the law firm of Johnson & Bell said the effect of incidents, like the one in Ferguson, impact the way civil rights lawsuits against police officers are defended.

“The Ferguson incident and incidents like it have a dramatic effect on how we defend civil rights lawsuits against police officers,” Gainer said.

With incidents in major cities across the country, including Charlotte, Chicago and Baltimore, attention on these cases is heightened, Gainer said.

“It’s become a much more challenging environment to do that [defend police against lawsuits] for a number of different reasons,” said Gainer.

In Charlotte, N.C., Keith La Mont Scott was shot by police on September 20. According to an Associated Press Story by Meg Kinnard and Marth Waggoner published recently, friends and family say he suffered a traumatic brain injury the year prior to his death. His wife uploaded a cell phone video of the incident to social media.

Heated confrontations between police and African Americans across the country are regularly being captured via cell phone video and plastered on the news. Gainer explained how media attention affects claims associated with these incidents.

“Often, when they hit the mainstream media you have or they have the video and nothing else,” he said, indicating that it creates an information vacuum regarding missing facts.

Initially, there may be an account that is anti-police or pro-suspect.

“Even later, Ferguson for example…if you find out that the facts as they were first reported were wrong in some way or somewhat erroneous. It’s too late, it’s almost impossible to correct the narrative once it’s been created,” explained Gainer.

That results in a problem for future defense of similar cases because it’s just a Google search away, he said. It can expose jurors to a story that has no basis in fact.

“It makes voir dire and other types of questions for prospective jurors so much more important. We really have to place an emphasis on it,” Gainer said.

The August 2014 shooting death of an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., prompted months of protests that resulted in a $40 million civil rights lawsuit by protestors alleging that police used excessive force against them. A federal judge ruled recently that the plaintiffs failed to present credible evidence proving crowd-control tactics by police in the days following Brown’s August 2014 death in the St. Louis suburb involved malice or bad faith, noting that protestors ignored repeated warnings to disperse.
Gainer shared his thoughts on what might assist in diffusing these types of situations in the future. Two main ways of addressing officer involved shootings are body cameras and improved training, he said.

“Body cameras seem to be the wave of the future when it comes to policing,” explained Gainer. “It’s about as close as you can get to seeing what a police officer sees.”

He thinks the technology can reframe incidents and reduce anti-police sentiment. And according to a recent study, he may be right.

In the UK, a study of British and U.S. police by Cambridge University revealed a 93 percent decrease in the number of complaints made against officers when they used body cameras.

Researchers suggest that cameras encourage best behavior on the part of both the officers and the public.

The study involved West Midlands Police, West Yorkshire Police, Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Police Service of Northern Ireland and departments in Ventura and Rialto, California. Nearly 2,000 officers and 1.4 million working hours were studied for a period of one year.

Barak Ariel, the researcher who led the study, said that people who are being observed and know it change their behavior.

“Everyone is recording the police except themselves. Now we have something from the officer’s point of view,” said Ariel.

Gainer expects that police departments throughout the country will take these incidents and use them as tools to teach officers about de-escalation and alternatives to the use of deadly force. “I think that these incidents if they do nothing else will allow police departments to more effectively train their officers.”

Jim Suhr of the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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