As law enforcement officers, we are often tasked to deal with a variety of critical incidents. However, dealing with a barricaded subject can be one of the most stressful and difficult. If these incidents are not handled properly, both law enforcement officers and their respective agencies can be held liable under Title 42 U.S.C., Section 1983, Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights.
Barricaded incidents typically involve either a barricaded criminal or an emotionally disturbed person (EDP). Numerous federal civil rights cases have carefully examined the actions of law enforcement during barricaded-subject incidents. A review of these cases indicates that law enforcement officers often fail to distinguish a “criminal” barricade from an “emotionally disturbed person” barricade. This distinction is significant, as the nature of the barricade will impact what force options law enforcement should employ.
When police officers distinguish a criminal barricade from a non-criminal barricade, they often preserve their qualified immunity and select the appropriate force options and tactics that do not violate the suspect’s constitutional rights. When police officers fail to distinguish a criminal barricade from a non-criminal barricade, they often make decisions and employ tactics that cannot be justified when the courts apply the Graham balancing test.
When evaluating the force options and tactics used during barricaded incidents, the courts will balance the governmental interests against the individual’s rights. They will examine the following factors: “(1) the severity of the crime at issue (2) whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others … (3) whether he [was] actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight, and any other exigent circumstances [that] existed at the time of the arrest” (Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 ). Simply stated, an emotionally disturbed subject who has barricaded himself, who has committed no crime and is not posing a danger to anyone but himself cannot be treated the same way as a criminal who has barricaded himself and may be posing a threat to others.
In August 2017, a survey of 490 New Jersey officers was conducted. The purpose of this survey was to determine if officers were able to distinguish a criminal barricade from a non-criminal barricade. Those surveyed were asked, “Is an officer equally justified in making a forced entry into a home to gain custody of an emotionally disturbed person as they would a person suspected of committing a crime?” The results were surprising.
The vast majority of respondents (359, or 73.27%) felt they were equally justified in making a forced entry to gain custody of an emotionally disturbed person as they would a person suspected of committing a criminal act. Just 131 respondents (26.73%) recognized the difference between a barricaded, emotionally disturbed person and a criminal barricade. These results are significant for our profession. It is this perception that is creating increased civil liability issues for our officers, our agencies and municipalities.
Law enforcement is a demanding profession in which actions are often scrutinized by not only the courts, but by the media as well. As law enforcement faces this increased scrutiny, it is also dealing with individuals suffering from mental illness in record numbers. The combination of these factors must be addressed by all law enforcement agencies.
If agencies want to minimize their exposure to civil liability during barricade operations, they must develop and incorporate quality training programs that address dealing with barricaded subjects and how to distinguish an emotionally disturbed person situation from a criminal barricade.
Allen Bloodgood joined the Woodbridge Township Police Department in 1994. He served in the U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm. He is a graduate of New Jersey City University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and he holds a Master’s degree from Seton Hall University. He is the primary instructor for the J. Harris Academy of Promotional Testing in the areas of arrest, search and seizure, Title 2C, Title 2A, court rules and other legal issues.