It is irresistible — and usually understandable — to second-guess the judgment of law enforcement officers when things don’t turn out well.
In sports parlance, it’s called Monday-morning quarterbacking. But, of course, the judgment of those in law enforcement can have a much bigger and longer lasting outcome than losing a football game.
When second-guessing those in law enforcement, though, one should also take into account the situation in which those decisions are being made. Sometimes, when the threat is imminent and grave, the decisions have to be made almost instinctively. There’s not much time to contemplate what to do. Other times, those in law enforcement have time to consider the evidence, think through the best course of action, and then respond accordingly.
There’s a big difference in culpability for decisions that have to be made in a rush and those that can be thoroughly thought through.
Following the horrendous school massacre last month in Uvalde, Texas, a lot of scrutiny has been directed at the school district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo, for not ordering officers to breach the classroom more quickly to take out the 18-year-old gunman. It’s unclear, at this point, whether all the information Arredondo, the incident commander, needed to make a good decision was getting to him. Nor is it certain that the roughly hourlong delay, while Arredondo waited on tactical reinforcements, resulted in more casualties.
Certainly, it was a situation for which all the training in the world might not prepare a lawman, particularly one who had never before dealt with a mass shooting. There had to be a significant amount of panic in that setting, which would have impaired most anyone’s judgment. And probably no one is questioning Arredondo more than he is questioning himself. He must live with the doubt, probably for the rest of his life, of whether some children died because he didn’t act quickly enough. That is a heavy burden he must bear, and not many should want to add to it.
The same consideration, though, does not apply to the FBI’s handling of the serial sexual abuse of American female gymnasts by Team USA doctor Larry Nassar. This week, a group of 90 women, including several gold medalists, filed a lawsuit against the federal law enforcement agency, seeking more than $1 billion in damages, for its failure to stop Nassar when it could have.
Two different FBI offices, one in Indiana, one in California, were told about what Nassar was doing to the girls and young women he had access to through his position, but agents in both locations took no action against him. It would be more than a year from the time when the FBI was first notified about Nassar before he was arrested by Michigan authorities. During that time, Nassar molested 70 female gymnasts, adding to his hundreds of victims.
The FBI and its oversight agency, the U.S. Justice Department, have acknowledged that the FBI badly and inexcusably mishandled the case. Now it’s a question of whether it will have to pay for that negligence, or whether it will be shielded by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which often protects those in government positions from civil liability for mistakes of judgment.
So far, Nassar’s victims have received settlements totaling almost $900 million from Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. It would not be surprising if the FBI is forced to kick in a significant sum as well.
If the case were to go to a jury, there will be a lot of second-guessing. It’s not likely jurors would be very sympathetic with the FBI for not taking the gymnasts’ accusations seriously enough.