Failing to Train Officers in Conflict De-Escalation May Constitute Sect. 1983 Violation

By: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

The plaintiff Lawrence Thomas sustained an attack at the hands of other inmates at the Cumberland County Correctional Facility. The attack occurred after a several minute long verbal argument between Thomas and a group of inmates in the presence of correction officers. In Thomas v. Cumberland County, 2014 U.S App. LEXIS 6668 (3rd. Cir. 2014), Thomas sued Cumberland County for, among other things, their failure to train corrections officers in conflict de-escalation and intervention techniques. While the District Court granted summary judgment in the County’s favor on the failure to train claim, the Third Circuit reversed.

Thomas had developed a reputation as a bully. He had been bartering for food and a group of 12 inmates had gathered outside his cell. The inmates were angry with Thomas, believing he had stolen food. A fight ensued and Thomas suffered an eye injury that left him blind in one eye. Allegedly, the officers knew a fight was about to happen but took no action to stop the argument before the violence commenced.

The sole issue on appeal was whether the County was liable under section 1983 for its failure to provide pre-service training on conflict de-escalation and intervention techniques. A municipality cannot be held liable for unconstitutional acts of its employees on a theory of respondeat superior. A plaintiff seeking to hold a municipality liable under section 1983 must demonstrate that the violation of rights was caused by the municipality’s policy or custom.

Where the policy or custom concerns a failure to train, liability requires a showing that the failure amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom those employees will come into contact. The deficiency in training must have caused the constitutional violation.

Here the relevant policy was the County’s decision not to provide conflict de-escalation and intervention training as part of a pre-service training for its corrections officers. The alleged constitutional violation stems from the officers’ failure to take reasonable measures to protect prisoners from the violence of other inmates.

The court focused on whether the failure to provide this training amounted to deliberate indifference and whether this deficiency caused Thomas’ injury. Fights regularly occurred at the prison and, thus, were relevant to whether his injury was a highly predictable failure to train on de-escalation techniques. Thus, the court found that a reasonable jury could conclude based upon the frequency of fights and the volatile nature of the prison that without de-escalation training, it was likely the situation would recur and that the county’s failure showed deliberate indifference.

Further, the court found that there was  a causal connection between this failure to train and Thomas’ injury. One of the officers could have stopped the argument before the violence broke out. As a result of these findings, the Third Circuit vacated the summary judgment granted by the District Court and remanded this claim back to the trial court for trial.