Law enforcement officers are there to protect American citizens but sometimes they are punished for doing just that. The Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF) is there to protect them when they’ve been unfairly targeted by the law for doing their duty.
Former Police Officer Stephanie Mohr, recipient of more than 25 letters of commendation and two awards for her police work since 1993, is currently serving a 10-year jail sentence for allowing her police dog to attack a fleeing suspect.
While Mohr operated within police guidelines of standard operating procedure, she and two other policemen were charged with civil rights violations and conspiracy. Now she is separated from her 2-year-old son, punished for doing her job.
The Arlington, Virginia-based LELDF maintains a dual-faceted mission to support and defend officers unfairly penalized for appropriate actions taken in the line of duty. LELDF helps cover legal fees and grants for personal support and provides legal support by serving as co-counsel, finding counsel or assisting in research.
“Our attitude is that the prosecutors ought to have some judgment that gives the officer the benefit of the doubt,” said chairman of the LELDF David Martin. “If he made a mistake — an honest mistake — they shouldn’t criminalize him. Maybe he should be suspended; maybe there should be a board of inquiry but certainly not criminal charges.”
The LELDF also educates the public about difficulties and dangers prevalent in the law enforcement field. They stress gratitude towards police officers as civil servants of the public. Their message stretches to college campuses, law schools and other relevant organizations through articles and presentations pertinent to the mission.
Martin said the LELDF works on half a dozen cases at any given time, though many more officers apply each year. Each case is examined individually, followed by a report which is submitted to the board for review. Most accepted cases receive a unanimous vote from members.
As a nonprofit organization the LELDF receives support through fundraising including direct mail, internet fundraising and direct appeal. Occasional bequests and donations from foundations contribute as well.
The LELDF faces most of its opposition from the civil rights division of the Department of Justice or local prosecutors looking to bring charges against an officer.
It’s difficult because many cases include a party of minority status and the officer stands against charges of racism or hate.
“Frequently, it will be that the alleged victim… is a minority, and if the officer or happen[s] to be… [a] white or a black officer in combination, sometimes Rev. Sharpton will call it racist and will say that cops are out of control,” Martin said. “We get criticized by organizations that are local community activists that think the police are out of control, especially if there’s a series of dangerous shootings and/or aggressive policing.”
The LELDF was launched after the Rodney King cases of 1992 — involving four police officers in L.A. accused of using excessive force in arresting King after a high-speed chase. Following the officers’ acquittal, riots broke out all over L.A., leaving the city in flames.
Accused Officer Sgt. Stacey Koon submitted his book Presumed Guilty: The Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair to Regnery Publishing, Inc., where Al Regnery — who became treasurer for the LELDF — published it. Regnery started a defense fund for Koon and the three other officers when they were retried in 1993 on federal civil rights charges, which lead to a request for help from close colleague and friend from the Reagan administration, David Martin.
Regnery and Martin believed more officers must be facing similar battles. Thus, the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund was created to help.
“We looked at the statistics and there’s like three seconds between when an officer is faced with a danger and the decision to use force or not,” Martin said. “So we created a nonprofit to help not only Koon but these other officers around the country…it was, in a way, serendipitous.”
That was 10 years ago and LELDF is still going strong, according to Martin. They have served upwards of 90-100 clients with a 90 percent success rate and there is not shortage of officers seeking their help.
“We’re filling a niche,” Martin said. “The unions and Police Association focus on the day to day matters that really are important to police officers. When an officer really needs help is when he or she gets suspended — when they get charged with a crime and they don’t have the wherewithal to defend themselves.”