Chicago officer files countersuit in fatal shooting: A precedent?

The officer is suing the estate of a teenager he fatally shot – a legal tactic that more officers could turn to, despite the adverse impact it could have on police-community relations.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File
Chicago interim Police Superintendent John Escalante speaks at a news conference in Chicago, Dec. 30, 2015.

The plight of the LeGrier family, at first, was a sadly familiar one.

Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old who some relatives said had mental health issues, encountered Chicago police after a  911 call and was fatally shot. The family mourned, questioned the police’s response, and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the officer involved.

But this all-too-familiar case has taken an unusual turn: The officer has filed a countersuit against the family, claiming Mr. LeGrier’s actions leading up to the gunfire have caused him "extreme emotional trauma."

With police officers around the country feeling unjustly abused by the public over how and when they use lethal force, especially against young black men, some say it's an old legal tactic that could become more common in fatal shooting cases.

Indeed, if the Chicago officer is successful in his complaint, "it will open the gate for other lawsuits," says Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia.

"There may be other means to address [officers'] problems, but this is one means to do so," adds Professor Burke, who was formerly a Maryland police officer. "It is unusual, and the outcome of this will reverberate around the country for law enforcement."

The wrongful death suit and the countersuit revolve around Officer Robert Rialmo and how he responded to a 911 call on Dec. 26 at LeGrier’s father’s apartment. Upon confronting the teenager – who was apparently wielding a baseball bat – Mr. Rialmo opened fire, killing LeGrier and, by accident, a neighbor who was in her 50s.

In his countersuit, Rialmo is seeking more than $10 million from LeGrier’s estate.

The act of a police officer personally suing a civilian for inflicting an on-duty injury is not unprecedented, but according to experts interviewed by the Monitor, it’s almost unheard of when it comes to fatal shootings.

Thomas Nolan, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and now an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., says he’d never come across a lawsuit like this during his career.

"I've never heard of anything like this," he says. "It's a really difficult position to litigate, particularly when it's the use of deadly force, to try and convince someone that the person who used deadly force is in fact the victim here."

There may be a simple explanation for the countersuit – as a legal tactic to pressure the LeGrier family to drop its suit. But regardless of the motivation, the case is likely to have one significant effect: to produce more divides between the Chicago Police Department and the communities it polices.

"It seems to me that it’s part of an officer’s job to put themselves in these dangerous, traumatic, emotional situations, so then to turn around and sue someone’s estate for it seems incredibly offensive," says Kami Chavis Simmons, a former assistant United States attorney who now directs the criminal justice program at the Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, N.C. "The toll that this is going to have on further straining relations within that community is just irresponsible."

The CPD, the second largest police force in the country, has been under scrutiny. The US Department of Justice in December launched a civil rights investigation into the CPD, and the month before, an officer was charged with murder in the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

There have also been signs of discontent within the rank and file. A January audit found that Chicago officers were intentionally destroying their dashboard cameras. And last October, Mayor Rahm Emanuel blamed rising violent crime rates on officers being less aggressive on the street, fearful that they would get into trouble for their actions.

These factors could, in part, explain Rialmo's countersuit, Professor Nolan says.

"Police in 2016 ... see themselves as victims of [unjustified] public persecution," he says.

"They have a strong sense that media continues to pillory them and paint them in a negative light," he adds, "and that the only way to avenge that is to use the litigation process."

Advocates of police officers filing civil actions as a result of on-duty injuries say it can be a useful and important defense against frivolous complaints and other inappropriate actions.

"This is rare; it has its consequences as far as police-community relations. But it also puts the public on notice ... that the police are not there to be abused, and there are consequences for inappropriate action on the part of the public against the police," says Burke at Radford University.

"Something like this may not heal [community] wounds, but I'm not sure that’s the intention of this lawsuit. This lawsuit may be intended to do the best it can to heal the wounds of the individual officer," he adds.

The CPD is not party to the suit. And Adam Collins, a spokesman for Mayor Emanuel, wrote in an e-mail to the Monitor that the city "does not support this lawsuit and is not involved in any way."

Civil suits filed by police officers have usually involved physical injuries suffered on-duty – in two recent cases in New York City, officers successfully sued drivers who’d injured them during traffic stops – but even those have proved controversial. Proponents of such litigation say it can protect officers from defamatory complaints and encourage them to go to greater, more dangerous lengths to help people, knowing they will be covered for any additional injury. Critics argue that people are dissuaded from filing complaints, for fear of countersuits.

Nolan at Merrimack College cautions about the effectiveness of using this legal approach for fatal shooting incidents – specifically, the one involving LeGrier.

"That's going to be an uphill climb, to convince a jury that the officer is the actual victim here when you’ve got two dead people who died at the hands of that very officer," he says.

But Burke sees some legitimacy in the approach.

"I would argue that an officer, though they should be enforcing the law ... should [also] have the right to sue," he says. "Whether they’re successful is another thing."

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