Deaths, Police

Good Samaritan Liability? Reflexive Trust of Police Costs a Man His Life

Good Samaritans are supposed to help strangers, not beat them up.

Joke about Good Samaritan liability all you want, but we’re about to talk about an interesting case that is right on point.

The Philadelphia Daily News reports on a lawsuit that has been filed in New Jersey. Keith Briscoe was killed during a scuffle with Winslow Township police officer Sean Richards and other men who came to the officer’s aid. Some of the men were cops, while others were random citizens — so-called “good Samaritans” — who had no idea what was going on but tried to help out the cop anyway. All of them are being sued in a civil action brought by Briscoe’s family members.

I hope Briscoe’s family wins.

I don’t know about you, but when I see a cop and a citizen having an argument or even getting into a fistfight, I don’t assume that the cop is in the right. I don’t assume the cop is addressing the situation with the best intentions or proper motives.

But I don’t assume that the cop is doing anything wrong either. I simply don’t assume and go about my business.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I do think I’m in the minority. And I think it’s about time that some in the majority feel some heat for making, and then acting upon, faulty assumptions that reflexively favor the police…

The Briscoe case is a perfect example of what I don’t think people should be able to get away with:

Three strangers from South Jersey became good Samaritans for a few frantic minutes outside a Wawa last year when they helped a police officer subdue a man in the parking lot.

That man, Keith Briscoe, apparently had done nothing wrong, though, and died beneath a pile of civilians and police officers. Now, the Winslow Township officer who initiated the arrest is no longer on the force, and he, those “good Samaritans” and four current officers are defendants in a $25 million civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Briscoe’s family….

One of those men, Daniel Damato, of Maple Shade, said last week that he vividly remembers the morning of May 3 and knows exactly why he helped Winslow Township police Officer Sean Richards.

“He dropped his handcuffs and I thought the guy might have tried to grab his gun,” Damato said.

Well, good for you, Daniel Damato. You’ll be my first pick for my paintball team this weekend. Unfortunately, you weren’t thinking about whether or not this Briscoe character should have been handcuffed at all. You weren’t thinking about whether or not this cop started the whole mess. You weren’t thinking about whether or not Kevin Briscoe posed any credible threat to the officer or anyone else:

Briscoe, who was schizophrenic and who lived at home, was standing outside the Wawa smoking a cigarette and drinking a soda he’d bought in the store. Briscoe, 36, visited the store every morning before going to Steininger Behavior Care Services down the street. Wawa had a no-loitering policy.

When Richards arrived to buy hot chocolate, he told Briscoe he was loitering and panhandling, and asked him to leave. Briscoe didn’t, though, and a struggle ensued when Richards tried to arrest him. When Damato, another customer and the manager intervened, [Briscoe family attorney Stanley King] said, Briscoe had already been maced several times and was having trouble breathing.

Now, there’s no way Damato or the other “good Samaritans” could have known all this. There’s no way they could have perceived that Briscoe was in imminent danger of losing his life after getting maced so many times. These people were not trained professionals.

Which is why they should have stayed the hell out. Officer Richards later pleaded guilty to assault and he is off of the police force. No matter how well-intentioned Damato and the others were, they chose the wrong side. They chose poorly, and now a man is dead. There should be some kind of punishment for that.

If you want to be a good Samaritan when the facts are clear, go right ahead. In the case of little Teddy versus the pond that isn’t frozen all the way through, go ahead and throw little Teddy a rope. Nobody will be mad (even if little Teddy grows up to be a psychopath who likes to write manifestos and mail bombs). You helped a person against a force of nature; that instinct is one of the reasons we’ve made it so far as a species.

Helping a police officer subdue another actual human being is a different thing entirely. There’s a whole extra person involved, there’s a complex interaction playing out, and a good Samaritan will be hard-pressed to know all of the relevant facts. Think about the instant case. These helpers were inside the store and saw a cop fighting with a man outside the store. What the hell do they know about what was really going down? With no relevant information, they decided to join in the beat-down. That makes them accomplices in an assault that led to the death of a human being. They’re supposed to get a free pass on that because they were aiding somebody in a uniform?

And don’t tell me that holding these people accountable will have some kind of “chilling effect” on the willingness of citizens to help their fellow man. This is America! We are founded on the skepticism of authority. We believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty. It’s entirely consistent with the American experience to be kind to others without assuming that police officers are always right or on the side of good.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying people should intervene on behalf of citizens against the police either. First of all, that would just be stupid (and likely decrease the survivability of both cops and good Samaritans). Second, if the police are committing an injustice, it’s better to have strong eyewitnesses there who can testify against the offending officers, rather than people labeled as  “co-defendants” sitting around telling tales about the police. As every reputable dog trainer will tell you: you don’t have to teach your guard dog to bite; a loud bark is often just as effective.

So unless you know exactly what is going on, just stay the hell out of it. If you really want to be a good Samaritan, help the lady who is struggling to get her baby stroller up or down the subway steps. Give up the cab you hailed in the rainstorm to the elderly couple patiently standing behind you. Help an injured Jew. Decrease your carbon footprint. Give a courtesy flush. Stop watching Two and a Half Men. There are tons of things you can legitimately do to help your fellow man and your community. Doing good deeds when nobody is around to praise you is the nobler course of action anyway.

Physically subduing a “suspect” because a cop dropped his handcuffs? That’s not trying to help. That’s trying to be a hero. That’s trying to be a lapdog of the establishment in hopes that they will give you a biscuit or at least put your picture in the paper.

I wonder what these good Samaritans would have done if both Briscoe and Richards were wearing uniforms and badges. Do you think they would have been so quick to help out the arresting officer just because he dropped his handcuffs? Maybe they would have helped the guy in uniform that was being maced to death? Naw, I think they would have minded their own damn business and let the system sort it out.

If you want to throw your physical weight behind the police, then you deserve to be held accountable when your police buddies are dead wrong.

Lawsuit asks: When is it bad to be a ‘good Samaritan’? [Philadelphia Daily News]

Earlier: Gatesgate: A Legal Hypothetical

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