A Victim’s Guide

At Injustice Everywhere, Packratt has crafted something that, to my knowledge, has never before existed:  a guide for victims of police misconduct.  And Packratt should know, having unceremoniously entered the game when he, out of nowhere, found himself thrust into the role of victim. 

That’s usually how it happens, ordinary person in the wrong place at the wrong time, suddenly on the wrong end of a police officer’s baton and attitude.  To the cop, it’s not worth a second thought.  Beat a person and he’s a perp, no matter whether it’s a bad person or a citizen.  It happens that the wrong guy gets whacked, but once the deed is done, there’s no turning back.  As Packratt learned, what happens afterward can be just as difficult to navigate and as bizarrely incomprehensible as the initial act of abuse.

There are 6 steps in the Guide, plus some additional thoughts that reflect sound experience.  As Packratt notes, and I reiterate, the guide will not perfectly cover every scenario, nor every jurisdiction.  No guide can be that comprehensive given the variables.  But it’s an excellent overview and speaks to some overarching truths that a victim needs to know. 

The fly in the ointment, if any, is that most victims of police misconduct won’t be aware of what to do until after they’ve made several mistakes, most notably the shift in attitude of being the outraged citizen screaming at the top of his lungs to the beaten victim,remaining silent.  The problem, of course, is that no one anticipates being a victim, and therefore no reason exists to be aware of the guide beforehand. 

Included in the Guide, as Steps 4, Organize Your Thoughts and Build Your Case, and 5, Find A Lawyer, But It’s Harder Than You Think. is some critical insight that Packratt learned the hard way

Why? Again, as a person who has received a lot of letters from police misconduct victims seeking help, 9 out of 10 times they are writing while still in a state of shock and what they write barely makes sense, is missing a lot of necessary information, and is not going to help them find a lawyer who will want to take their case. Usually, it’s all a confusing jumble, but that’s mostly a symptom of the trauma and shock caused by the incident, so it’s understandable, but it can cripple their chances at finding help.
People come to lawyers with a laundry list of perceived wrongs, each of which is the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone since the beginning of time.  It’s like telling the doctor that your pain is the worst ever.  It informs only that you’re angry, but not whether you have a viable claim.  We need factual information, not feelings.  You’ve only got a certain amount of time to explain what happened, and if you use that time to explain how you feel about what happened, you’ve wasted your time. 

While every single minute detail may be critical in your mind, its unlikely to be significant legally.  I’ve heard a description of the 30 second beating take more than an hour to describe.  You aren’t going to get an hour to describe it.  It’s not because no one cares, but because you’re one of many who want to use up the same hour, and we only get to spend it once. By organizing your thought around the salient facts, you make good use of your time.  By oozing every iota of angst, you tell the lawyer that what you really need is a therapist, and provide no useful information from a legal perspective.

Sure, you were probably told that the ACLU takes any case they hear about or that lawyers would be crawling out of the woodwork to take your case… Well, you were misled. The ACLU only takes a fraction of cases, usually based on whether the case will make precedent or make a lot of headlines, they are very selective about what they take and not helpful otherwise.

Lawyers don’t like to take on police misconduct cases either. They are difficult to win and take a lot of time to build… and most police misconduct victims don’t have the money to pay them up front. So, when lawyers aren’t being paid upfront lawyers have to gauge the risks involved in taking your case against how likely it is they would win and if what they would stand to win would pay for all that time and expense they’d spend on your case. Don’t feel bad if they turn you down, it’s all business since they have to make a living too.
Common wisdom, defined as ideas that get you into worse trouble than you started with, is that anybody can find a lawyer willing to take their case just for the asking.  After all, we constantly hear about frivolous lawsuits, and certainly yours is absolutely valid and filled to the brim with merit.  Lawyers should be begging to take your case.  As Packratt learned the hard way, it’s just not true.

Contrary to the expectations of many, not every harm caused by police will give rise to a cause of action.  Cops are given more latitude in their conduct than anyone else on the street, and what normal people would perceive as an egregious act of violence becomes a mere mistaken when committed by a police officer.  If you don’t like it, remember when next you vote for some law and order candidate.  Even if your circumstances give rise to a cause of action, lawyers need evidence.  Your swearing that you would never lie isn’t the same as medical reports and photographs.  Without evidence, the best case goes south.

And then there’s the nasty issue of “damages”.  Damages means compensable injuries or harm.  Even if the rest of the stars align, this aspect tends to be the crushing blow for most victims.  Worse still, it’s delivered not by the cop, but by the lawyer.  Most of the time, the victims of police misconduct suffer little compensable harm.  A day in jail, some bruises and humiliation, a dubious criminal charge (with an equally dubious disposition), and there will be no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

When delivering this news, the victim invariably looks at the lawyer in shock, proclaiming that her injuries are enormously significant to her.  No matter how empathetically the bad news is framed, I’ve never seen a victim not blame the messenger.  It can be heartbreaking, but as Packratt correctly notes, it’s a business decision.  Lawyers can’t run a practice by bringing lawsuits in cases without adequate damages.  And, given that few victims can pay the freight for the suit, and seek a lawyer who will take a contingency fee (a percentage of the recovery), the recovery has to be sufficient to make the suit financially worthwhile.  It’s not a matter of greed, but survival.  Lawyers’ children need to eat just like yours.

While Packratt advises to keep trying and to be patient and professional in your efforts, the sad truth is that many, perhaps most, police misconduct cases will never result in a lawsuit.  The lawyers who do this sort of work are very picky, learning early that taking on the wrong case can destroy a practice.  There are far more wrongs in the world than the law is capable of redressing, a sad but hard truth.  It’s not that we don’t sympathize or agree, but we’re forced by necessity to make hard choices.  We don’t want to add to your pain, but we often do.

This is an excellent piece of work by Packratt, and one that should be read by every victim of police misconduct as soon as possible. If nothing else, his experience, painful though it was, will serve to help others who find themselves in this nightmare.  Again, Packratt has shown his generosity of spirit in using his horrible experience to help others.  He will never receive the appreciation that he deserves for what he’s given others, and my thanks for his efforts pale in comparison to all he’s done.

8 thoughts on “A Victim’s Guide

  1. Lorraine Sumrall

    Yes, Packratt definitely deserves our thanks and attention for the valuable service he provides each day in his efforts to uncover acts of police misconduct. We all should wake up and face the reality that there is indeed a possibility that one day that victim of brutality could be us, and we need to educate ourselves how to best handle that situation. Packratt’s guide is a great resource in the event that scenario comes to pass.

  2. RainerK

    While I agree with your bigger point that making good use of available time is important, let me point out this sentence: While every single minute detail may be critical in your mind, its unlikely to be significant legally. As a prospective client I don’t know what is important legally. That’s why I come to see you. If I miss a detail to save you time, I might pay for it forever.
    Why not reverse the procedure? Ask the client the questions you know are legally important. Find out what the facts are.
    From a position of factual ignorance, have you ever tried to get crucial info from a professional only to discover $$ 1000s later that you didn’t ask the right question?

  3. SHG

    You’re point is well taken.  When a lawyer interviews a prospective client, we usually let the client tell us why he’s come to us in the first instance.  If the client goes off track, or gets bogged down in minutiae, we ask questions to get him back on track. Frequently, however, prospective clients want to tell us what they want us to know rather than what we need to know to assess the merit of the case.  In other words, they want to vent and don’t want to limit what they have to say.  They want, maybe need, to get it all out.

    But it should never happen that the lawyer doesn’t learn everything.  This is just the initial meeting.  There will be many more, where greater depth is explored and discussed, and every inch of a case will come out.  And once a lawyer has decided to take the case, there will be many, many questions, focusing on the details legally relevant and necessary to win.

  4. RainerK

    Just thought about Scott’s post some more.
    You know, lawyers are therapists. But do they have the requisite training and license to prevent devastating abuse of clients innocently delivering themselves into their power? The answer, of course, is a resounding NO!
    I shall prevail on the Legislature to close this glaring loophole immediately!

    /attempt at levity

  5. SHG

    You’re absolutely right.  While we (and I) try to be holistic in my handling of clients, meaning that if I see that a client needs help in disciplines beyond my skillset, I try to persuade him to get the help he needs from someone qualified to provide it.  But we (and I) tend to overestimate our ability to offer therapeutic help, and often make a mess of things.  It’s good to want to help. It’s better when you know your limits.

  6. Packratt

    Thanks for the post Scott, and thanks for the kind words Lorraine.

    While the guide isn’t as complete as it could be because I wanted to keep the length down to a readable amount, I think it covers a lot of the main points that confuse and frustrate so many victims of misconduct.

    Though, what I should have focused on more was adjusting people’s expectations and preparing them for a lot of rejection. I know the myths out there and how easy it is to believe that these cases win a lot of money and you’ll have lawyers calling to take your case… and I know how frustrating it is to find out on your own that, even if your case has legal merit, that doesn’t mean you have a viable lawsuit.

    Whether it will actually help anyone will remain to be seen, I’m not sure that enough people will find it when they need it, but we’ll see I guess. I’d hate for all the mistakes I made not to go to good use.

    Thanks again!

  7. SHG

    It’s my hope that by highlighting it (get it, Bennett, Tannebaum, others), the word will spread and those who need to know the deal will be able to find your guide as early as possible.

    You did an excellent job.  There’s always more to do, but nobody needs a book, especially as they come off a nice police tune-up.  You should be very proud of this effort.

  8. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, I agree. Excellent job Packratt. One that will undoubtedly require amendments/updates & maybe a copy of this Post attached. I hope it is placed permanently on the home page.

    Victims of public servant misconduct and brutality now have a place (I.E) where they can share/expose, heal/relate, & learn how to investigate/prepare for the reality check as they seek justice. Thanks for acknowledging his unique project.

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