Are Victims of Police Shootings Entitled to Crime Victims’ Compensation?

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Victim Rights march, Sacramento CA, 2014. Photo by CalVCB via Flickr

While victim compensation funds (VCF) exist to help victims and their families during a traumatic time, in order to be eligible for up to roughly $50,000, victims have to provide a police report of the event.

This is no trouble for many victims with documentation; however, that’s not the case for victims where the assailant or perpetrator is a police officer.

Law enforcement often identify victims incorrectly as witnesses of an event, in order to protect themselves from liability, inadvertently barring families from needed aid,  according to a new report published by the Nevada Law Journal. 

The paper’s author, Valena Elizabeth Beety, a professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, argues that as current legislation stands, VCFs automatically disqualify victims of police shootings and their families because of who the perpetrator is.

“A legally innocent civilian who has been shot by [law enforcement] is a victim, particularly in a deadly shooting where the government imposed the sentence of death without any process,” writes Beety, who is also the deputy director of the Academy for Justice at ASU. 

Beety details that as recently as the 1990s, the victims’ rights movement led more than 30 states to establish Victim’ Bill of Rights.

Now every state has a VCF, used directly to reimburse victims and their families for losses and expenses related to the harm that they suffered — including funeral expenses, medical bills, counseling fees, and lost wages.

Often funded through offender’s fines and fees, VCFs are capped, and thus are more tangibly helpful for non-deadly use of force compensation where the medical and related bills could be covered by $50,000 or less.

In total, state programs and boards disburse nearly $500 million in compensation to victims every year, Beety details.

To that end, victims of police shootings don’t generally receive compensation mainly due to the fact that victims must cooperate with the police, which assumes that law enforcement have not committed any wrongdoing, and therefore any action they take resulting in an injury to a civilian cannot be defined as a crime..

Moreover, to apply for funds, a police department must identify the applicant as a victim or a witness, and, when law enforcement is involved in a deadly situation, they’ll often identify a deceased or surviving victim as a witness to protect themselves and the department from liability.

This, Beety writes, is easily mitigated by changing consideration rulings and making victim compensation funds accessible to victims of police violence.

Who is a Victim? 

The definition of “victim” within criminal law refers to someone who has been harmed by criminal conduct.

Some states differ on their definition of what it means to be a victim of a crime, largely weighing someone’s role in an event, as well as their perceived responsibility for the event taking place.

For example, to be considered for compensation from most funds, victims must not be engaging in “criminal conduct” before the time they were victimized, or else they’re seen as not fully innocent in the matter, and are disqualified, Beety describes.

In Georgia, the state excludes victims who consented to any of “the events leading up to the crime,” noting that being trafficked is a unique exploitation, and wouldn’t bar them from compensation.

Other states routinely deny compensation if a victim was intoxicated at the time of a crime, while others deny the victim if they have prior convictions, like for drug possession.

Beety adds: “A research report funded by the DOJ concluded that 28 percent of denials across the states were due to contributory misconduct.”

This places a substantial burden on families living in at-risk areas, since “victims of police violence and police shootings are more likely to be financially impoverished and unable to pay these basic costs to recover from physical and psychological harm,” Beety found.

Law Enforcement Perspective

Many police agencies defend the deadly use of force by arguing that the officers felt threatened, effectively turning the tables and reidentifying the officer as the victim in the case — even if someone on the other end of their gun’s barrel lost their life.

“To that end, these officers and their union representatives are using legal mechanisms such as Marsy’s Law to affirmatively identify police as victims and to take advantage of the protections reserved for victims,” Beety described. “Most notably, police officers are asking for victim anonymity.”

Beety observed that officers are uniquely positioned and even internally and externally empowered to self-identify as the victim of the case where they perpetrated violence against citizens, arguing that their level of response as a trained professional is warranted.

“And yet the civilians who die in police shootings and their families are harshly judged as to whether they are deserving of the status of victim and deserving of funds for funeral expenses.”

Overall, a majority of advocates argue that victims where the police are the instigators should be qualified for compensation the same way that victims of other crimes are.

“The requirements of police cooperation, and ‘innocence’ of wrongdoing should be eliminated, allowing the state boards that distribute funds to determine applicability on a case by case Basis,” Beety concludes.

“These funds could then help community members, and overpoliced communities, recover from police violence.”

Valena Elizabeth Beety is professor of law at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the deputy director of the Academy for Justice, a criminal justice center connecting research with policy reform.

The full report can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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