When police officers are sued for corruption or brutality — and when, as more frequently happens, the case is settled — it is almost always the city that employs them that picks up the tab for the damages awarded. This may be changing, with the focus now on events in Baltimore.
BALTIMORE – As the Baltimore Police Department currently sits front and center in a massive corruption trial, talk of having individual police officers be fiscally responsible for the lawsuits against them is making the rounds. Two officers in Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force were found guilty earlier this week of racketeering and robbery in the federal trial. Six other officers pleaded guilty prior to trial and are currently awaiting sentencing.
The talk of police officers’ fiscal responsibility is apparently coming from the police union itself, which, like most other law enforcement unions around the country, ordinarily views as anathema any attempt at finding fault with its members or holding them accountable.
Forward Observer states that the police union sent out a memo on February 13 saying individual police officers could now be responsible for paying punitive damages when juries rule against them, which represents a change in the city’s policy. The city’s solicitor, however, says it’s not, in fact, a change in policy, as it has always been that way. He added that it’s just now being publicized because of the scope and seriousness of the current trial.
When an individual files a civil lawsuit against the police department and/or an individual officer, the city that employs such parties usually settles the lawsuit out of court. When a settlement is not reached and the case goes to trial, if a jury finds the officer guilty, the city pays both the compensatory damages and the punitive damages, if any are awarded. It is only when a jury finds that an officer “acted with malice” — as in, intended to do harm to a person in his or her custody — that the city will not pay punitive damages, making the officer individually liable.
That’s shaping up to be the case currently in Baltimore, where nine rogue officers were found to have acted “with malice” in making drug arrests.
The egregiousness of some of Baltimore’s cops’ activity has prompted Maryland state legislators to propose bills as a much-needed corrective measure. Jail time for deliberately turning off body cameras, a review of police department spending, and monies earmarked for people wrongfully arrested and convicted, are among some of the plans. What hasn’t been talked about, however, is a commitment by the city to make it official policy that there will be no payment of damages out of city coffers for cops. That actually would change Baltimore’s policy, since the city has paid millions of dollars before most judges pick up their gavels.
A drain on city budgets
2015 data from the Wall Street Journal shows that, while Baltimore paid out only $12 million over the years 2010-14 for police misconduct cases, that payout was 74 percent of all police-claims payouts. That figure, while not including employment lawsuits, is higher percentage-wise than those of New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, three cities with much larger police misconduct payouts during the same time period.
The Marshall Project, named after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to create awareness of the U.S. criminal justice system, maintained a database of Police Misconduct Payouts for three years, last updated in September of 2017.
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A cursory glance at some cities’ payouts, based on the available data, shows Baltimore isn’t the only city that operates this way.
The City of Chicago has paid out a whopping half a billion dollars in total police misconduct payouts: $662 million as of March 2016. That figure encompasses payments reaching back to a lawsuit in 1952.
Not surprisingly, New York City payouts for police misconduct over a four-year time period lead the way: $601 million from 2010-14. Philadelphia’s total was $54 million for that same time period. In 2017, Philadelphia paid about half of that – $24 million – to settle just three lawsuits. Three.
Taking away from the things that keep communities safe
The citizenry is doubly affected because such payouts drain city (and county) budgets of resources for essential services. As the Baltimore Sun noted in 2014, for example, “the $5.7 million in taxpayer funds paid out since January 2011 would cover the price of a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds.”
Rec centers, playgrounds, mental-health and drug-abuse support; job training and placement; curbing homelessness; and of course, educational needs: the very sorts of things most municipalities bemoan never having enough money for. The very sorts of things that keep communities safer than punitive policies and force.
When you consider the fact that, in a city like Chicago, even when juries find against rogue officers, their penalties are negotiated away, it underscores the absolute need for a legally binding policy of police paying out-of-pocket for their misdeeds.
Campaign Zero, launched in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s August 2014 murder by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, suggests that the cost of police misconduct be shifted back to the institution of policing as opposed to individual rogue officers. Their specific policy recommendations are to:
- Require the cost of misconduct settlements to be paid out of the police department budget instead of the city’s general fund
- Restrict police departments from receiving more money from the general fund when they go over-budget on lawsuit payments
Whether it’s the individual officers who pay for their dirty deeds, as proposed in Baltimore and elsewhere or the police department itself as suggested by Campaign Zero, one thing is clear: those who are currently paying for this calamity are the ones who can least afford to — the tax-paying public.
Top Photo | A boy stands in front of a police cordon following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray’s family agreed to a $6.4 million settlement with the city in September 2015. (AP/Matt Rourke)
Thandisizwe Chimurenga is an award-winning, freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, California. She is a staff writer for MintPress News, Daily Kos and co-hosts a weekly, morning drive-time public affairs/news show on the Pacifica Radio network. She is the author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant and Reparations … Not Yet: A Case for Reparations and Why We Must Wait; she is also a contributor to several social justice anthologies.