There is an old saw that pops up regularly whenever an officer gets killed and it always rankles me. “He/She knew the risks when he/she signed up for the job!” gets tossed out as some bizarre reasoning to care less about the tragedy and spend as little psychic energy as possible sensing the loss and cost to the community when someone entrusted to protect and serve is killed. Certainly, risk is part of the law enforcement job description but what is the obligation of the employing entity to compensate for the risks and take action to mitigate them within reason? Training, equipment, manpower, policies, and supervision are all used to help lower the risks to the community and agency personnel. But what if basic risk compensation such as manpower or training is neglected by the agency? Be it from within the agency or by controlling government bodies who chose to deny or anticipate the needs of the employees involved.
We all can see the risks inherent in a lineman’s job climbing to dangerous heights and often in dangerous weather conditions to restore our essential services. Any company that neglected the training or equipment would certainly face civil liability were one of these people so denied were injured. But what about a deputy working for a county? Would the family of a slain deputy who perceives his death to be the result of neglect by the county have any grounds to sue? Would qualified immunity protect the agency? What is the duty of a government body to protect its crime fighters in the politically charged “defund” and “reimagine” politics of today? Well, maybe we will see if Washington State decides to reinstate the case of Estate of McCartney v. Pierce County.
In January of 2018, Deputy McCartney responded to a home invasion call. He was working a back-to-back shift on less than six hours sleep in a county with 12 deputies and 1 sergeant covering 1,806 square miles. Consultants in 2009 and 2018 submitted comprehensive reports detailing the severe short staffing of the Sheriff’s Department. Due to micromanagement by the County Council the Sheriff didn’t have proper funding for staffing or training and management and supervisory training were not consistent all of which culminated in the death of Deputy McCartney upon arriving, alone, at the scene. All this was alleged in a lawsuit brought on behalf of the family in February of 2021.
Pierce County then requested a judge dismiss the case as Deputy McCartney “was aware of the hazards of the job but ‘voluntarily confronted that risk.’” In April of 2021 a judge agreed with the county and dismissed the lawsuit. That would seem to put an end to the issue except Washington State is a state that takes employee liability very seriously and seems, by statute, to deny government entities the ability to just say, “well he was just doing a dangerous job!” The National Police Association seeing the issue a little differently than the judge has filed an Amicus Brief in support of the McCartney family seeking to reinstate the case.
It seems the ruling the County won on was an odd interpretation several standing laws and cases and upon reading the Brief it would seem it only natural the courts should have a chance to evaluate the actual liability. What are the obligations a law enforcement has to protect its community as well as its employees? When balancing budgets how should safety be weighed against resources and what other compensations can a government agency do to mitigate risks?
One can hope as this case unfolds in the future leaders throughout the nation will examine these issues and recognize their obligations to seek the resources essential for a state, county, or local agency to provide their services. Budgets have become a hot topic and always bring to mind the problems of staffing, equipping, training, and supervising any department whether big or small. While the first reflex is to throw money at problems, modern problems may need innovative responses. Just robbing Peter to pay Paul has left key training issues and excellent programs on the table or led to severe staffing problems and overworked, exhausted employees. The challenge for leadership is to truly become problem solvers instead of blamers. Blaming this entity, or circumstance for a problem is something of a nation pastime nowadays; but true leaders understand an excuse is permission to fail and seek to solve a problem rather than blame!
In the McCartney tragedy it would seem to be a perfect storm of today’s contemporary problems straining an agency to its limits. For sixteen years staffing had failed to keep up with population growth, and the night of his killing there was only one other deputy working Deputy McCartney’s 700 sq. mi. beat. We all know the risks inherent in police work when we sign on but understaffing is a risk no one anticipates and only management can compensate for. Providing the essential services of keeping the peace, protecting life and property should be a priority for every level of government and to casually acknowledge the risk to those who serve without giving them the resources and training required is literally the golden example of negligence for a management team!
Sadly, it is often the tragedy that is the catalyst for positive change and perhaps the McCartney family’s effort while giving additional meaning to the good deputy’s sacrifice by forcing government bodies to provide essential resources to its people and in so doing not only reduce the risks to their employees but also the people they serve.
The National Police Association’s amicus brief filed in the Court of Appeals for the State of Washington in support of Deputy McCarty’s widow is here.