MINNEAPOLIS — As victims of police misconduct across the country file an increasing number of lawsuits, taxpayers are bearing the brunt of the financial burden.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the 10 U.S. cities with the largest police departments paid out over $248 million in settlements last year in cases related to police misconduct. That’s an increase of 48 percent from 2010, the first of five consecutive years for which the Journal obtained data through public records requests.
When totaled, the five years of police misconduct in 10 cities represented $1.02 billion in payouts to victims or their families, including “beatings, shootings and wrongful imprisonment.” If other forms of misconduct such as vehicle collisions and property damage are included, the total rises to $1.4 billion.
In their report last week, Zusha Elinson and Dan Frosch offer some insight into how that total breaks down:
“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.”
Taxpayers, not police departments, end up paying for police misconduct, the reporters continue:
“Cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are self-insured, meaning any payouts come out of city funds. Others have insurance that kicks in at a certain payment level in each case. Smaller municipalities often pool risk with others, but the cost of premiums can increase after incidents occur, much like car insurance. It is almost unheard of that officers pay out of their own pockets, according to a 2014 study on police liability by Joanna Schwartz, a UCLA law professor.”
Experts interviewed by the Journal suggest that the availability of video recording is a major factor in the rise of successful lawsuits, a theory supported by two recent multimillion dollar settlements against police. On July 13, the City of New York and Eric Garner’s relatives agreed to a $5.9 million dollar settlement. Garner died a little over a year ago after NYPD officers put the 43-year-old black man in a chokehold. A video recorded by a bystander and widely circulated online shows Garner repeatedly crying out, “I can’t breathe,” as police pin him to the ground.
And, the Los Angeles Times reported on a $4.7 million settlement between the city of Gardena, an L.A. suburb, and the family of Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, who was killed by police during a 2013 shooting caught on police video cameras. The video, released to the public last week, shows Diaz Zeferino searching for a stolen bicycle with two others, his coworkers Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez and Jose Amado. Police believed the trio were bike thieves and held them at gunpoint. In the video, the Times reports, “the men are shown with their hands raised as officers had their guns drawn. After Diaz Zeferino drops his hands near his waist multiple times, a flurry of shots are fired. Diaz Zeferino was killed. Mendez was hit near his spine but survived. Amado was unharmed.”
In both cases, police escaped criminal prosecution but faced successful civil suits. And in both cases, relatives of the deceased say the settlement money won’t solve the larger problems of police misconduct that led to these deaths.
Last week, The New York Times reported that Eric Garner’s relatives have renewed their calls for a federal investigation into his killing. “Don’t congratulate us; this is not a victory. The victory will come when we get justice,” said Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, at a press conference.