Data show rising payouts for police-misconduct settlements and court judgments.
The 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million last year in settlements and court judgments in police-misconduct cases, up 48% from $168.3 million in 2010, according to data gathered by The Wall Street Journal through public-records requests.
Those cities collectively paid out $1.02 billion over those five years in such cases, which include alleged beatings, shootings and wrongful imprisonment. When claims related to car collisions, property damage and other police incidents are included, the total rose to more than $1.4 billion.
On Monday, New York City agreed to a $5.9 million settlement with the estate of Eric Garner, whose death after being put in a police chokehold last summer sparked widespread protests.
City officials and others say the large payouts stem not just from new cases, but from efforts to resolve decades-old police scandals. In 2013 and 2014, for example, Chicago paid more than $60 million in cases where people were wrongfully imprisoned decades ago because of alleged police misconduct.
For some cities, the data show that cases have gotten more expensive to resolve. Philadelphia police have faced criticism for numerous shootings in recent years. Last year, the city settled 10 shooting cases for an average of $536,500 each. In 2010, it settled eight for an average of $156,937. A city lawyer attributes the rise to a few large settlements, not a pattern of questionable shootings.
“The numbers are staggering, and they have huge consequences for taxpayers,” says Kami Chavis Simmons, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now directs the criminal-justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law. “Municipalities should take a hard look at the culture of police organizations and any structural reforms that might help alleviate the possibility of some of these huge civil suits.”
William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, which represents about 240,000 officers, says lawsuits and settlements aren’t necessarily an indication of problematic policing. “You could have Mother Teresa running a police department and you’re still going to have lawyers out there saying she’s not to be trusted and we’re going to sue,” he says.
For most of the police departments surveyed by the Journal, the costliest claims were allegations of civil-rights violations and other misconduct, followed by payouts on car collisions involving the police. Misconduct cases were the costliest for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas and Baltimore. Car-crash cases were the most expensive for Houston, Phoenix and Miami-Dade, a county police department.
In April, less than two weeks after a news helicopter captured video of sheriff’s deputies in San Bernardino County, Calif., kicking and beating Francis Pusok , the county reached a $650,000 settlement with him. Mr. Pusok had been trying to escape from the deputies on a horse he allegedly stole. He hadn’t filed a lawsuit at the time of the settlement and still faces charges.
“They wanted this to go away fast,” says Sharon Brunner, a lawyer for Mr. Pusok, who is fighting the charges. A spokesman for the county said the quick payout was made to avoid costly litigation.
Zusha Elinson and Dan Frosch, “Cost of Police-Misconduct Cases Soars in Big U.S. Cities”, The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/cost-of-police-misconduct-cases-soars-in-big-u-s-cities-1437013834