What is the problem?
The growing use of non-lethal weapons such as tasers by the police has to calls to ban or restrict their use. The real issue being debated is the extent to which police officers should risk their safety to detain suspects. Should they only use force when someone’s life is in danger, or to avoid the risk of injury when attempting to tackle a suspect, or to avoid a sprain from having to run after someone? It is likely that further debate will result in a consensus enforced by the legislative and judicial branches of government. But what criteria should be used to determine the level of risk that police officers may be exposed to before using force?
Under the current system, police officers are only held responsible for injuring others only if found guilty of a miscarriage of justice, that is, willful malice or negligent behavior in the performance of their job. This provides an incentive for the judicial branch to minimize liability by maximizing the leeway officers have in deciding whether to use force. Furthermore, establishing standards for proper police procedure is a highly-non objective process, based on factors such as the public’s fear of police brutality, their desire for safety, the cost of lawsuits from police actions, and the political gain politicians find from pushing more or less draconian policies. One means of improving on this process is to establish a strict liability criteria for police actions.
What is strict liability?
Under a strict liability standard, it is not necessary to find a party guilty of malice or negligence, only of fault. Perpetrators of damages arising from inherently dangerous activities are responsible for damages regardless of whether they acted improperly. For instance, drivers at fault for damaging another car or injuring a driver are held financially responsible regardless of whether they acted maliciously or negligently. Under strict liability, a police agency would be held responsible for personal injury and property damage if an officer injures an innocent suspect, or unnecessarily injures a criminal — even if the officer acted properly in the performance of his duty. For example, an officer who fires at a guilty suspect who poses a real threat would not be liable, but an officer who fires at a suspect who does not pose a threat will be held liable for damages whether the officer is guilty of a miscarriage of duty or simply made an error in judgment. Furthermore, such a system would repay defendants who are exonerated at trial for their time and suffering.
Strict liability shifts incentives to the party best qualified to control costs
One objection to the strict liability standard is that it would greatly increase the financial risk faced by police departments and courts. However, by placing the burden of minimizing costs on the judicial agency, a strong incentive is created to minimize mistakes – and therefore costs. It is likely that police departments would attempt to insure themselves against risk, and the insurance agents would in turn establish guidelines that seek to minimize their risk. Such guidelines may ban tasers because of their health dangers – or they may require them in most situations where deadly weapons were formerly employed. Police agencies may prefer to hire men because they would find it easier to tackle suspects (and thus avoid a major incentive for taser use) or women because they are better at resolving conflicts peacefully. Because they would bear the cost of mistakes, police agencies would be motivated to experiment on the most effective way to perform their jobs, while the public they protect would be financially shielded from their mistakes by a strict liability standard.
Strict liability discourages prosecution of victimless crimes
Another objection to strict liability under the current legal framework is that it would make police agencies averse to enforcing laws that are prone to mistakes or unsuccessful prosecutions – namely, those known as “victimless crimes.” Adultery, gambling, homosexuality, and the trade of illicit substances and goods are areas where the lack of a victim makes errors in suspect identification and successful prosecutions especially likely. This is especially true of laws pushed by vocal voters on unwilling recipients – for example, communities that favor drug or alcohol prohibition on communities that tolerate drug and alcohol users. Yet this only illustrates the insulation of government policies (and by extension taxpayers) from the cost of economically expensive (and thus socially destructive) laws. If enforcement agencies are required to pay for their mistakes, they will favor laws that can be objectively enforced, and violations of which result in victims pushing for enforcement.