What Police Learn from Lawsuits
By Joanna C. Schwartz
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) – School of Law
December 2, 2010
This Article asks what we can learn from the vast amount of information generated by modern civil litigation. One answer lies in the practices of a small but growing number of law enforcement agencies that pay careful attention to suits brought against them and their officers. These departments gather information from initial complaints, discovery, and case resolutions and use that information to identify personnel and policy weaknesses. Lawsuit data has proven valuable to these departments’ performance improvement efforts: Suits have alerted departments to incidents of misconduct, and the information developed during the course of discovery and trial has been found to be more comprehensive than that generated through internal channels. Although information generated by litigation has filled gaps in internal reporting systems it is also, undeniably, flawed. The adversarial process produces biased and sometimes irrelevant information about a relatively small number of misconduct allegations, and the slow pace of litigation means that a case may not be resolved until several years after the underlying event. Departments in my study mitigate these flaws by gathering information from each stage of the litigation process, reviewing data in context with other available information, and using independent auditors to consider what the data may show. Department practices take advantage of the strengths – while minimizing the weaknesses – of lawsuit data and thereby suggest a promising way to learn from litigation.
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