For months, protests over the police involved killing of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, George Floyd in Minnesota and others around the country reinvigorated an intense debate over policing. Then when Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville, Ky., recently announced the city would pay $12 million to Taylor's family and institute a number of police reforms, that highlighted an aspect less discussed — the financial impact of police misconduct on cities and taxpayers.
Cities can face hundreds of lawsuits every year charging, among other things, that police used excessive or deadly force or made a false arrest. Many times the details of settlements are hidden behind confidentiality agreements. UCLA Law Prof. Joanna Schwartz studies how jurisdictions budget and pay for police legal expenses. She says problems of police violence are not limited to large cities and although payouts can total in the millions, more often they are in the thousands of dollars range.
"The number of cases filed and the number of dollars paid to resolve cases depends very much where in the country you live," Schwartz says.
As an example, she points to her study of the judgments and police misconduct — related lawsuits filed over a two-year period in Houston and Philadelphia, cities that have police departments of similar size and histories. Schwartz says although Houston police officers killed more people and were disciplined more often than Philadelphia police, plaintiffs in Philadelphia filed 10 times more lawsuits and were awarded 100 times more than those in Houston.
"I don't think the difference has to do with the severity of the harm," Schwartz says. "It has a lot to do with other issues including the judges, the juries, the kinds of claims that can be brought and the number of attorneys who are experienced and willing to to bring civil rights cases."
Money for police could be better spent elsewhere
High-profile cases garner the most attention. The family of Michael Brown - the unarmed Black teenager killed by a police officer in 2014, reached a $1.5 million settlement with Ferguson, Mo. In Chicago, the city agreed to pay the family of LaQuan McDonald $5 million. His death was captured on video and the police officer who fatally shot him was convicted of second degree murder. In 2017, the mother of Philando Castile, a Black motorist killed by a suburban Minneapolis police officer a year earlier, reached a $3 million settlement with city officials. The financial award for Castile's girlfriend, who live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, was $800, 000.
One of the arguments in the ongoing protests over policing is that the money for police could be better spent elsewhere. The clash between protesters and police following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis means that city and others could face a myriad of legal costs.
In Chicago, several groups work to resolve cases of people who've been wrongfully convicted. Two years ago, a federal jury awarded $17 million to Jacques Rivera — in what's considered one of the largest police misconduct settlements in the city's history.
"I say I was kidnapped by the Chicago police, wrongfully," says Rivera, now 55 years old. Rivera spent 21 years in prison for a murder he did not commit — framed, he says, by a now retired Chicago gang crimes detective. Rivera is one of at least 20 who have been exonerated in cases where that detective, Reynaldo Guevera, led the investigations.
"They set out to wrongfully convict me for whatever reasons why, maybe it was to calm the community that they got the perpetrator or whatever it may be," Rivera says. "It's still not right because taxpayers have to pay for it. The victim's family has to relieve this all over again once they think it's closed and it's just painful for everybody."
Costs pile up, taxpayers foot bill for police misconduct
Over the past decade, Chicago has paid more than a half billion dollars for police misconduct, according to an analysis of city law department data. Rivera's attorney, Locke Bowman is the head of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School. He says in cases where misconduct is clear, cities often continue to fight against the allegations for months – sometimes years —and that can mean a hefty price tag for taxpayers.
"The decision to settle a case like that early ends up saving money for attorneys' fees and can result in a lower settlement before everybody gets dug in and the price of the case goes up," he says.
Insurance policies and city and county budgets usually pay for judgments and claims. Jurisdictions hurting for cash may borrow money and issue bonds to spread out payments. Add bank fees, plus the interest paid to investors and the costs pile up with taxpayers footing the bill for police misconduct. As COVID-19 devastates budgets nationwide, that could be a more frequent scenario.
Chicago City Council Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack says the city is working to break that expensive pattern and concentrating on implementing police reforms mandated by a consent decree put in place after a white Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, fatally shot LaQuan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American.
"So that we're not just saying 'okay, here's another settlement. Good job negotiating' and move on. But really look at the deep seated issues within the department to start rooting out those problems," Waguespack says.
Activists argue tying police misconduct costs to police budgets could help prevent police wrongdoing. They also want police officers, especially repeat offenders, to be financially accountable. Currently so-called qualified immunity rules shield officers from those costs. That's changed in Colorado. State Representative Leslie Herod was the force between the state's decision to drop its qualified immunity provision. A new law requires officers guilty of wrongdoing to pay up to 5% of a judgement or $25,000 - whichever is less.
"If they were found to have acted in bad faith- violating someone's rights- possibly ending in death," says Herod, "they actually have to be held personally responsible just like anyone else who violated their policies and their obligations at their workplace."
The law also allows officers to purchase liability insurance. Other jurisdictions looking to reduce police-related lawsuits may follow that hybrid model of splitting settlement costs between cities and individual officers. That's all with the hope that such an arrangement will help put a stop to police behavior that leads to settlements in the first place.