Let’s be clear about something: When police use unnecessary deadly force and someone dies as a result, it is not a tragic accident. Calling a death like that an accident and declining to press charges against the officer involved in the shooting is a form of victim-blaming.
Wrongful death is never the same thing as an accidental death — calling it one makes it sound like the death was unavoidable — but that isn’t true. Wrongful deaths are the result of irresponsible behavior, negligence, indifference, carelessness, and recklessness — all of which are avoidable choices.
When the authorities characterize a wrongful death as an accident, it makes it sound like the officer had no choice except to use deadly force. In the public’s mind, it’s assumed that the victim must have done something — anything — to be partially at fault.
That may be one of the most important reasons to file wrongful death lawsuits against the police when they are warranted — it allows the public to learn what really happened and puts the blame back on the right party.
It also puts pressure on police departments around the nation to find better ways to avoid more needless deaths:
- Teaching officers to find better ways to handle unarmed but potentially violent people, especially the mentally ill
- Emphasizing the duty to protect even those they may need to arrest by always trying to deescalate a situation first and carrying non-lethal options
- Training officers to retreat and talking to suspects instead of firing on them while they’re waiting on backup
- Addressing assumptions officers may have about some people being inherently more dangerous than others because of stereotypes and racism
Filing a wrongful death claim against the police is only partly about receiving compensation for your loss — because no amount of money will replace the person you loved and what he or she brought to your life. Wrongful death claims can also be an important part of bringing about changes that will prevent someone else from suffering a similar loss. It’s also, all too often the only way to hold the officer-involved accountable for his or her actions — which may also help prevent someone else from losing his or her life needlessly.