(RICHMOND, Ind.) – Some families in Uvalde, Texas, are exploring possible legal action against police who failed to intervene in the elementary school massacre there for more than an hour. But any lawsuit would face steep hurdles.
The families of four students at Robb Elementary School have sued the gunman’s estate, and their attorney has said the suit opens the door to gather evidence for potential legal action against other defendants, including law enforcement. But IU East criminal justice professor Stephanie Whitehead says while other professions from doctors to lawyers can be sued over mistakes, officers must make decisions in an instant based on what will serve the interests of public safety. In almost all cases, the law grants them immunity from having those decisions second-guessed in court.
People do sometimes win lawsuits if they can show an officer acted outside the scope of his job — for instance, in police brutality cases. But Whitehead says if police believed a direct attack would have endangered officers, or if they misread the danger posed by the gunman, an argument that they made a bad decision isn’t enough to win a suit. And Whitehead says it would be even harder to sue over something police didn’t do, rather than something they did.
Whitehead says any attempt to take police to court is further complicated by the still muddy and contradictory accounts of what happened, three weeks after the shooting. She says while a lawsuit would be unlikely to succeed, it could force police to provide a definitive account.