Even Though Cities Spend Millions on Police Misconduct Annually, It Is Hard to Hold Police Departments Accountable

Even Though Cities Spend Millions on Police Misconduct Annually, It Is Hard to Hold Police Departments Accountable

In November 2014, a Cleveland, Ohio police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Two years later, the city paid his family $6 million. This payout averted a civil rights lawsuit. The family's attorney called the settlement "historic in financial terms," although no amount of money could compensate for the loss of Tamir.

The officers responsible were not charged in the killing.

Since then, Cleveland has spent almost an additional $10 million in police misconduct settlements. While Rice's family said they hoped their settlement would stimulate change in the nation's policing, the situation has gotten worse. The amount of money spent in settlements by Cleveland in the five years after Rice's death was far more than the amount spent in the five years before his shooting.

$3 Billion in Payouts

An analysis by The Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight of the public records of 31 of the 50 cities with the nation's highest ratio of police-to-civilians shows that these cities have paid out more than $3 billion over the past decade to settle police misconduct lawsuits.

Most of this money, $2.5 billion, was spent by three of the country's largest cities –New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Detroit, San Francisco, and Milwaukee were among the smaller cities that spent tens of millions on police settlements during that period. The numbers for Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington D.C. were incomplete for the entire 10 years.

Factors Influencing Settlements

The data collected via this public records analysis is admittedly incomplete. The investigators were told by some city authorities that records were not kept in a manner permitting easy analysis of the amount spent on police misconduct settlements. Other cities sent them huge troves of court documents with a message to figure out the amount themselves. There are no laws specifying what cities must collect for record-keeping in these situations.

The Philadelphia and Houston police departments are about the same size. Over a recent two-year period, the number of civil rights lawsuits filed against the Philadelphia Police Department was 10 times the number filed against the Houston Police Department. Plaintiffs in Philadelphia were awarded an astonishing one hundred times more in settlements and judgments.

What is the reason for this disparity? In some states, the law particularly favors police officers, meaning there is a greater chance of lawsuit dismissal. Cities may have settlement caps in place.

The number of civil rights lawyers available also plays a role. In some cities, attorneys taking these cases are plentiful, while that is not the case in others. When lawsuits are difficult to file, fewer victims of police misconduct are willing to file them.

The type of lawsuit filed can prove confusing. In some states, rather than a civil rights claim, a person injured by the police may file a personal injury lawsuit.

Some jurisdictions are known for juries that favor police misconduct victims. With that knowledge in mind, the city is more prone to settle rather than risk going to trial.

Of course, there are some well-run police departments that do not have many cases of misconduct. That should be the goal of every city.

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