America is in the midst of an epidemic of police violence against civilians. More than a thousand Americans are killed by law enforcement annually, according to most experts, and many more are injured. Federal, state and local laws protect citizens’ right to be free of state sanctioned brutality. My law firm, The Bloom Firm, represents many people in all types of civil rights matters, including excessive force cases. Unfortunately, most of them come to us after having already made some mistakes in the early days after they were assaulted. Of course, most people are shocked and traumatized and weren’t sure what to do at the time.
So, while I hope you never experience the trauma of excessive force, here are my top seven tips on what to do if it happens to you.
1. Gather evidence before leaving the scene.
Videos and photos: Immediately find out if there’s a video or, second best, photos. This is always our best evidence in excessive force cases. One of my clients, who was beaten by a police officer in a hospital waiting area, was smart enough to look up and notice there was a security camera. The next day, before she even got an attorney, she demanded a copy of the videotape. That quick thinking prevented the destruction of this critical evidence.
Pull out your smartphone and take pictures and videos of every inch of the crime scene. You can figure out later which ones are most relevant.
Witness contact info: Don’t let witnesses get away. In one of my excessive force cases, my client got only the first name and phone number of a woman who said she’d seen the whole thing and was horrified by my client’s racially charged beating at the hands of a group of white security officers. Sounds like she would have been a great witness for us. Unfortunately, by the time he came to my law firm, the number was no longer in service and we had no way of finding her again.
Get each witness’ full name, phone number, email address, street address. If you have time, call the person immediately on your phone to be sure the number is correct. Don’t worry about what they saw, or how important that might be. Your attorney will figure that out later. Just preserve the contact information.
Clothing and personal items: Save everything: your clothing, shoes, bag, even underwear. Don’t wash anything that has blood, tears or stains. Put these articles in bags in a safe place. Keep them in your custody. Your attorney will want them.
2. Seek immediate medical attention.
If you were injured or think you might have been, go to a doctor immediately. Explain fully what happened to you. This is not the time to be tough or in denial. Be honest about your full array of symptoms: headache, backache, scrapes, bruises, whatever you are experiencing. Be honest about your medical history and medications.
A few days later, if bruises, swelling, soreness or other new symptoms appear, go back to the doctor for a follow-up. At the very least, take clear photos in good light from multiple angles of your injuries.
3. Get an attorney as soon as possible.
I know you’re in shock. You’re hurt. You’re angry. But do not make the mistake of waiting until “things settle down” before you sign-up a civil rights attorney. This only allows the government time for its investigators to build a case against you. And if your case is in the media, you’ll be smeared. You need an advocate who will level the playing field from the very beginning, and who will assert your rights.
If you’re worried about attorneys’ fees, seek an attorney who will take your case on a “full contingency” – he or she won’t get paid unless you win your case. Many good firms understand this is the only way to help police assault victims. (Mine does, for example.)
Another reason to call a lawyer right away: There are time deadlines inherent in every legal case. For example, in California, where I practice, there’s a six month government claim filing requirement that may apply to your case. Other states have shorter or longer time deadlines.
4. Memorialize your story for your attorney.
Write out everything you can remember in a document labelled “FOR MY ATTORNEY” at the top. This means your narrative will be protected by attorney-client privilege. Do not show it to anyone else. This may destroy the privilege, meaning it won’t be confidential anymore.
Include as many facts as you can remember while your memory is fresh. Think: who, what, when, where, why, how. This will be of tremendous help later to both you and your lawyer.
5. Review your social media presence.
Many cases have been lost because an injured person is shown looking like a nut on Facebook. Or the victim tells a different story on Twitter than she does in court. Look through all your public posts and be sure that they all reflect the serious nature of your life and your claim. Don’t give the other side anything to use against you. Social media will be the first place they look. Delete anything that doesn’t honestly reflect you.
6. Tell your friends and family to expect calls.
Avoid giving details of your lawsuit, but do tell people close to you that you’re in an excessive force case and they may be contacted by police investigators about you. They are under no legal obligation to speak to investigators. If your lawyer would prefer they do not speak to law enforcement, let them know that. Ask them to tell you if they do get called, and ask what they said.
7. Line up your support person.
Litigation is stressful, exhausting, grueling. Weeks and months may pass where it seems like nothing is happening; then, suddenly, you must rush into court for a hearing (but first you have to wait four hours to be called). I am always so impressed by my brave clients who walk through the fire of the American justice system — it can be agony.
You need a support person. One of my clients this year had the world’s best sister, a lovely woman who was there for him every step of the way. Another leaned on his young wife, who had steely resolve when he fell apart. Maybe it’s a best friend, or a parent. Reach out and tell them you’re going to need them, and give them huge thanks when the case is over. I hope you have someone like this in your life who will commit to see you through the process while your attorney fights for you in court.
The times are changing when it comes to excessive force. Thanks to the activism of thousands of Americans in nonviolent protests, and to people demanding justice and accountability in the courts, the country is waking up to this rampant injustice.
I hope these tips will no longer be necessary one day. Until then, protect your rights.