The country is currently focused on the systemic brutality against minorities found in so many police departments. While the headlines concentrate on the latest outrage, there is yet another factor to consider that affects all of us.
That is the often huge financial settlements received by the victims of police brutality – or their families if they were killed – for which taxpayers are on the hook.
For example, the family of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by Louisville, Kentucky police in her own bed, will receive a $12 million settlement. Mayor Greg Fischer made this announcement recently, but the amount of many such settlements remains unknown due to confidentiality agreements.
Where Plaintiffs Sue
Large cities face hundreds of lawsuits annually against the police. However, how many claims are filed and how much money is paid varies by region. For example, Houston and Philadelphia have similar-sized police departments.
In recent years, more people died at the hands of law enforcement in Houston than in Philly, but plaintiffs in The City of Brotherly Love filed ten times more lawsuits against the police than plaintiffs in Space City.
The difference revolves around the fact that there are more civil rights lawyers in Philadelphia and the sort of claims a plaintiff may bring.
Paying for Claims
Money for settlements comes from municipal insurance policies, as well as from city and county budgets. If the municipality in question does not have the resources to pay these judgments, then they must borrow the funds and issue bonds to make these payments.
Cities borrow money all the time to fund new schools, libraries, recreational facilities, and other community benefits. When they must borrow money and issue bonds – and pay the related interest and fees – to pay the victims of police misconduct, that is money that could have been better spent elsewhere to help the public.
Whether a particular incident constituted misconduct is often ambiguous. In such cases, it makes sense for a city to fight a lawsuit rather than settle. The bad news is that even when police misconduct incidents are cut-and-dried, complete with video, many cities still fight for months or years.
The legal fees alone are enormous. Cities that decide to settle such cases early on not only avoid these big legal bills but may negotiate a lower settlement with a plaintiff’s attorney.
Police Reforms Pay for Themselves
The drive to reform the police is based on rooting out long-term problems. While racism and other issues require confronting, the fact that police reforms are good for a municipality’s bottom line is often overlooked. Reforms should mean much fewer cases of misconduct, which will slow the number of lawsuits filed and money paid out.
Police Financial Accountability
What if police officers accused of misconduct had to pay the settlement of their own pockets, rather than depend on their jurisdiction to foot the bill?
According to a 2017 University of Hawaii Law Review article, How Much is Police Brutality Costing America, between 2006 and 2011, in 44 of the nation’s largest jurisdictions, police officers financially contributed to settlements and judgments against them in just “.41 percent of the approximately 9,225 civil rights damages actions resolved in plaintiff’s favor.” Their financial contributions were only .02 percent of the more than $730 million spent by local jurisdictions in these situations.
That same year, 2017, saw New York City spend $302 million in police misconduct lawsuits, a new record.
Under the law of qualified immunity, police officers are not responsible for paying any of these costs. That may change, especially for repeat offenders.
In Colorado, a new law going into effect as of July 2023 will cause a police officer whose employer finds that the officer was not acting in good faith or lawfully personally liable for up to 5 percent of a judgment or $25,000, whichever is less. Under the law, police officers may buy liability insurance for themselves.