This is my fifth recession since entering law enforcement more than 40 years ago. I've seen the same pattern repeated enough times to be able to predict the law enforcement ramifications of the current economic downturn. Here's what happens.
First, there's a hiring and spending freeze in most law enforcement agencies. Then promotions and raises slow down. Economic crimes increase significantly throughout the duration of the recession—drug sales, thefts, burglaries, frauds, and robberies (and when robberies go up, the murder rate follows). Even domestic violence increases, as frustrated, out-of-work people lose patience and take out their problems on spouses and children.
Because departments are unable to replace retiring and departed officers, most jurisdictions will have fewer officers confronting bigger caseloads. That causes clearance rates to decline, and that's not good news in a country where we're able to clear only 62 percent of murders, 40 percent of rapes, 26 percent of robberies, and 12 percent of burglaries and auto thefts in the best of times. (FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 2007)
What's the first budget item most departments cut? Training. Training is considered nonessential—a luxury that's affordable in good times, but something no one will miss when the dollars get tight. But I've also seen the price agencies pay down the road after they cut training, and it's often much higher than the cost of continued training would have been.
Put simply, officers who fall behind on core training and who stop getting regular updates on recent case law become a civil liability to themselves and their employers. Within six to 18 months after necessary training is curtailed, claims and lawsuits start pouring in. One particular cause of action, known as a "Canton claim," will multiply, because it's based on a department's failure to train.
City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris
Individual officers can be sued under the federal civil rights statute for violating a person's constitutional rights under color of authority. (Title 42, United States Code, section 1983) In Monell v. New York DSS, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a plaintiff could also sue the officer's agency or employing municipality (city or county) if it could be shown that a constitutional violation resulted from an official policy or practice of the department. This sort of claim was expanded in 1989 to allow a lawsuit based on the agency's "deliberate indifference to the duty to train its officers" in the constitutional limits of their authority.
Geraldine Harris sued the City of Canton for allegations of mistreatment while she was in police custody. She argued that the City's failure to provide adequate training to its officers constituted a "policy or practice" that would support a Monell claim. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The court held that where a department's obligation to provide ongoing training is obvious and the training is not conducted, this will establish the "deliberate indifference" that creates civil liability. Said the court:
"For example, city policymakers know that their police officers will be required to arrest fleeing felons. The city has armed its officers with firearms, in part to allow them to accomplish this task. Thus, the need to train officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force can be said to be so obvious that failure to do so could properly be characterized as 'deliberate indifference' to constitutional rights." (Canton v. Harris)