Can Law Enforcement Supervisors Be Held Liable for the Acts of Their Subordinates?

excessive force

A hot topic that has been circulating within the courts is the issue of whether a supervising officer can be held responsible for the acts of the officers that work underneath him.

Here is an example: a pretrial detainee is being held at a local jail. While still being housed there, some officers conduct a shakedown, searching the jail for drugs. During the shakedown, one of the officers attacks the detainee without provocation. The attacking officer’s supervisor is in the room during the attack, and neither the supervisor nor other officer try to stop the attack. Aside from the attacking officer, can the supervising officer be held liable?

Are supervising officers responsible for the acts of their subordinates?

The short answer is that there is a good likelihood that that supervising officer is also liable. In Mississippi (as well as the Fifth Circuit, which includes Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas), federal law explains that supervisory officials are typically not vicariously liable for the acts of the subordinates; however, that is not a hard and fast rule. Under caselaw, liability attaches if the supervisor either:

  1. affirmatory participates in the acts that cause the constitutional violation; or
  2. implements unconstitutional policies or fails to train subordinates which result in the constitutional violation.

Under the first possibility, whether the supervisor either participated in the act or deliberately fails to act while knowing that a constitutional violation is occurring is an issue to be considered. The second possibility is a little trickier, because it focuses on whether the supervisor established a policy that is clearly unconstitutional or failed to train his subordinates properly. A good example of an unconstitutional policy is whether there is an ongoing practice accepted by the supervisor which clearly leads to constitutional violation (for example: knowing that attacks occur but everyone stays quiet about it). The failure to train question rests on whether the failure to train would have led to a clear constitutional violation (for example, failing to train officers to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force).

Going back to our main example, if the supervisor was in the room when the attack occurred, but failed to act, that failure was an intentional choice which could lead to the supervisor also being held liable for the attack. Likewise, since a pretrial detainee has a constitutional right to not be subjected to excessive force and officers have an obligation to intervene when they witness excessive force, that adds another layer of liability to the supervising officers, since he would likely be held liable for other officers’ failure to intervene.

But let’s change the facts up a little. Suppose the attacking officer’s supervisor was not in the room when the attack occurred and had no knowledge of the act until afterwards. While the supervising officer may not have been present and liable under the first possibility, he might still be liable for failing to properly train that officer (and the other officers that were present).

When it comes to supervising official’s liability, the question really turns on whether the supervisor was present during the act and whether the constitutional violation was obvious. Regardless, if there was a constitutional violation or excessive force was used, the best thing to do is to always try to hold people responsible, especially those that were in a position to stop it or ensure that it was avoided. As with all civil rights, it is also important to remember that you only have a limited time to initiate a lawsuit for a civil rights violation (typically 1 year for a claim under Mississippi law, and 3 years overall for a federal claim).

If you think you have been the victim of excessive force, contact an attorney to discuss the facts and circumstances surrounding your case as soon as possible.