Is it wise to allow curious and unarmed people to accompany police on official business, particularly if the scenario involves closing a suspected rental property where occupants have been accused of drug dealing?
In general, most city and municipal leaders would ask, "Why take the chance?" said Clifford A. Rieders, a local attorney.
The Sun-Gazette contacted Rieders to provide a neutral viewpoint on the legal issues regarding the merging of civilian and law enforcement activities after the Team Williamsport initiative was launched this past week.
Team Williamsport, the brainchild of city police Assistant Chief Timothy Miller, has grown to more than 200 members who are concerned about the heroin problem and want to help clean up the city.
On Friday, about 25 participants, including several children, accompanied police and codes officials as two rental properties where drug activity was suspected were posted with eviction notices and occupants told to leave.
The Sun-Gazette also contacted the city solicitor to ask what liability the city faces by engaging in official, potentially dangerous activities with members of the public alongside them.
"Civilians can interfere with police work to be done and subsequently complicate the work done by the officers and prosecutors with the district attorney's office," Rieders said.
Many leaders of large cities approach such citizen involvement with public safety official action "gingerly," Rieders said. "It's hard enough to do police work and then to successfully prosecute."
Additionally, someone might become a witness if it went awry, he added.
In the case of the Guardian Angels, the organization approached the New York City Council to establish itself and to delineate the scope of responsibility as "extenders" of the police department, Rieders said.
Rieders said the city leaders may have felt secure because the city government has immunity for any damages under most activities, including civilians aiding police.
A state statute generally provides the city with immunity of negligence, said Norman Lubin, city solicitor.
However, there are several factors in which the city could be liable for negligence, he said, declining to list them.
Lubin said he is barred from discussing whether he spoke with Mayor Gabriel J. Campana or the police administration prior to the Team Williamsport walk-along.
"That's attorney-client privilege," he said.
"Suppose someone on these raids gets shot by a criminal?" the Sun-Gazette asked Rieders, repeating a concern posed earlier this week by Councilman Bill Hall.
"Theoretically, it is possible," Rieders said. If "deliberate indifference" was proven against the city, that would constitute gross negligence, he added.
It wasn't clear whether clearances were provided for individuals in the group who planned to accompany police on activities.
At the very least, the city should have executed a waiver for each participant, Rieders said.
He also said much of the issue has to do with the facts of the situation, as police Chief Gregory A. Foresman alluded to in Wednesday's news report.
There is a big difference between a planned ride-along with any community member or an activity coordinated between the department and the district attorney's office involving a civil action, Rieders said.