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What Happens When Cops Kill Innocent People?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Another innocent person was gunned down last week by law enforcement officers who mistook him for a stabbing suspect.

John Winkler, 30, a production assistant on Comedy Central's "Tosh.0," was shot and killed by Los Angeles County Sherriff's deputies Monday, after fleeing an apartment where he was being held hostage, reports the Los Angeles Times.

What happens when cops kill innocent people?

Investigation and Suspension

Like in any unnatural death, there is an investigation of the cause by the police. In cases where a law enforcement officer claims to have either accidentally shot someone or shot that person in self-defense, that officer is typically placed on administrative leave. Depending on the circumstances and the agency, this leave may be either paid or unpaid.

While authorities investigate the killing, a special administrative body within the law enforcement agency will determine if further action needs to be taken.

Criminal Charges

Based on the investigation or findings of the administrative board, prosecutors may file criminal charges against an officer who has killed an innocent person. Charges can range from serious allegations of murder and coverup to less serious charges such as assault with a deadly weapon.

Yet in many cases, prosecutors decline to file criminal charges against officers who kill innocent civilians.

Civil Charges

Whether or not criminal charges are filed when innocent people are killed by cops, the victims' surviving relatives are entitled to sue the officers and the government. Often families will claim that excessive force or lethal force was unreasonably used by officers, which violated the victim's constitutional rights.

A civil lawsuit can be filed alongside criminal charges. However, courts will often stay a civil case when a criminal case for an innocent person's killing is pending.


Government entities may choose to settle with victims' families -- often for millions -- to close out liability for their loved ones' deaths. If settlement isn't an option, a jury may award just as much (if not more) to families who can prove their loved ones' deaths were due to malicious or reckless conduct.

Reports of police killing innocents don't go unnoticed -- at least not forever. The Department of Justice recently called for police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to overhaul their policies on deadly force based on a long history of excessive force, The Associated Press reports.

Hopefully these reforms are a step in the right direction.

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