In a situation where an officer is forced to make a split second decision, for example, when in pursuit of a suspect, what are the possible ramifications of that decision for the officer?
Law enforcement officers are trained to think on their feet in extremely stressful situations, including life-threatening ones. How well they respond to that training, and how well that training prepares them for real-life contingencies, helps to determine how they will respond when confronted with an actual life and death situation.
Police officers are trained to remove their sidearms from their holsters only when they determine a threat to themselves or to others exists that may warrant the discharge of those weapons. Failure to use proper judgement in circumstances when lethal force may be required will result in a departmental investigation into the officer's conduct, suspension with or without pay depending upon the circumstances, and possible criminal charges should the investigation conclude that the officer fired inappropriately. In addition, the victim (if he or she survives the shooting) or the victim's family (if he or she dies as a result of the shooting) may be liable for civil penalties. In other words, the officer can be sued by the victim or by his surviving family.
Increasingly, officers in vehicular pursuit of a fleeing suspect (i.e., a car chase) are under pressure to resist the temptation to continue the pursuit out of fear that innocent civilians will be hurt or killed in an ensuing accident. If a fleeing suspect strikes another motorist and kills that person while a police car is in pursuit, the officer will be questioned by his or her department regarding the officer's judgement. If the risk to civilians exceeds the potential benefits of continuing to chase a suspect, then the officer is expected to break off the chase.
Police officers are answerable to their commanding officers, to internal affairs divisions, to "shooting incident" investigations, and to the public at large. They know that one wrong move can lead to suspension, dismissal from the force, prosecution for criminal negligence, or a civil lawsuit brought by a suspect or victim.
The ramifications of this decision are that an officer who makes the wrong decision may well get him or herself into a great deal of trouble.
Let us imagine a scenario in which an officer is in hot pursuit of a suspect. The officer must decide, for example, whether to shoot at the suspect. If the officer does not choose to shoot, they can get into trouble. For example, imagine what happens if the suspect escapes and then goes on to murder someone an hour later. In such a case, the police officer would surely come under a great deal of criticism for lacking aggressiveness and thereby allowing the negative result to occur.
But then imagine what happens if the officer shoots. First, think of what happens if the officer misses and hits a bystander. The officer will surely be subjected to a great deal of scrutiny for making the decision to shoot in a case where innocent people could be hurt. The officer could also get in some trouble if they shoot and hit the suspect. This will depend very much on the circumstances of the chase.
One way or another, the officer’s decisions in this kind of a situation will have ramifications because officers are held accountable for their actions.