Police reform could save cities millions of dollars in misconduct payouts

Police behavior during protests over George Floyd’s killing only reinforced impressions of police brutality and racial disparity.

Why should we reform the police? Besides being the right thing to do, it will save a ton of money in the long run.

How to reform the nation’s police forces is turning into a potent political issue for the November election. The ongoing protests in nearly 150 U.S. cities about police violence against African-Americans haven’t let up since George Floyd died when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and a growing number of activists and lawmakers are calling for change.

It’s a moral imperative for police to treat all citizens fairly and equally, regardless of race. It’s also an imperative for police not to brutalize citizens. But when they do, those same victimized citizens and their families file lawsuits against police departments when they’ve been treated unjustly, injured, or killed. Huge settlement payouts in lawsuits over police misconduct are bleeding budgets dry in both small cities and major metropolitan areas.

The frequency of police killings nationwide is staggering: A Washington Post investigation shows that police shoot and kill nearly 1,000 Americans each year. “Since 2015, police have shot and killed 5,400 people,” according to the ongoing Post tally. In addition, “Black people have been shot and killed by police at disproportionate rates — both in terms of overall shootings and the shootings of unarmed Americans.”

Of course, it’s not just shooting and killing unarmed people. Three common types of police misconduct are false arrest from illegal search and seizures; the use of excessive or unreasonable force; and the misuse of a position of power, which can include sexual assault during a pat-down or body cavity search. You can add to that list wrongful conviction, planting evidence, stealing evidence in drug cases, lying on officials reports, driving drunk — there’s no shortage of misdeeds. At least 85,000 police officers nationwide have been investigated for misconduct in the last decade.

It’s not easy to challenge police misconduct, as police accountability boards are often made up of former officers. But successful lawsuits by victims of police misconduct can mean major payouts by the nation’s cities, often to the tune of millions of dollars each.

A story from VirTra News explains it.

Cities across the country spend millions upon millions of dollars defending themselves or even settling lawsuits dealing with police wrongdoings. Litigation fees, settlement fees, and in some cases, court-ordered payments can all but bankrupt a city.

There is no overall compilation of how much the nation’s cities have paid out to settle cases of police misconduct, although one 2018 study looking at 20 big cities found a combined annual payout total of over $1 billion. Such payouts mean an increasing drain on city budgets. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • In Los Angeles, police misconduct was responsible for 42% of the $880 million in settlements from 2005 to 2018, a sum higher by far than for any other municipal department.
  • Chicago paid out more than $113 million in 2018 alone to settle police misconduct cases. The total tab from 2011 to 2018 is more than half a billion dollars. The median payout was $50,000 for all police misconduct cases, and Chicago paid for an average of one lawsuit every two days.
  • New York City pays out more than any other municipality. In 2017 alone, New York paid a record $302 million for police misconduct lawsuits.

It’s not just big cities getting hit with a financial sledgehammer. According to a story in Governing, smaller cities also feel the pain and are sometimes forced to close their police departments.

Most small governments have liability insurance to help them cover the costs of lawsuits. But legal costs for police misconduct can still place huge strains on budgets and, in some cases, can lead to law enforcement agencies being disbanded. …

When misconduct lawsuits start mounting, insurance companies can withdraw coverage. Without insurance, a single claim against a local police department has the potential to bankrupt a small municipality. As a result, cities in California, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee have in recent years opted to disband their police departments after losing coverage.

Another factor in the debate over police reform is the idea of defunding or abolishing police departments all together, which is putting the issue front and center politically. A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council has announced its intention to disband the city’s police force, so naturally Republicans were quick to pounce. Donald Trump immediately tweeted: “LAW & ORDER, NOT DEFUND AND ABOLISH THE POLICE. The radical Left Democrats have gone Crazy!”

Some other big-city mayors also are proposing cuts to police department budgets. Los Angeles Mayor Gil Garcetti wants to cut the LAPD budget by $150 million, and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio wants cuts to the $6 billion NYPD budget.

What, exactly, does defunding the police mean? Here are well-thought descriptions of defunding or abolishing the police by Christy Lopez, Georgetown Law School professor and co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program, writing in The Washington Post.

Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.

Police abolition means reducing, with the vision of eventually eliminating, our reliance on policing to secure our public safety. It means recognizing that criminalizing addiction and poverty, making 10 million arrests per year and mass incarceration have not provided the public safety we want and never will.

Nevertheless, few Democrats are embracing the terms. Congressional Democrats announced sweeping legislation on police reform designed to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system but did not call for defunding or disbanding police departments. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made clear that he opposes defunding the police and instead backs a criminal justice reform plan based on community policing and other proposals.

The Minneapolis proposal to disband the police, however, is not the first time such an idea has been tried in the U.S. The police department in Compton, California, for instance, was disbanded in 2000, and all policing was turned over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Camden, New Jersey, serves as an example of how to disband police successfully. Camden dissolved its city police department in 2013 and joined forces with the Camden County Police Department. The city instituted a series of incremental reforms with an emphasis on community policing. Although some local activists still see shortcomings and are pushing to create a civilian review board for cases in which force is used, complaints of excessive force in Camden have dropped 95% since 2014.

Despite the fact that payouts over police misconduct should be a matter of public record, cities rarely publicize them. “Police unions and their political allies have worked to put special protections in place ensuring some records are shielded from public view, or even destroyed,” said a 2019 USA Today investigation looking into records of such actions.

The settlements that make the news are the high-profile and high-dollar payouts, often over an unjustified killing. For instance, In Chicago, the family of Laquan McDonald, the black teenager shot 16 times by a white officer in 2015, received $5 million. In New York, the family of Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold in 2014, received $5.9 million.

So local and independent journalists have been forced to dig on their own. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism site that has reported on all types of police misconduct since 2014, lists individual payouts by municipality, city by city, and few cities are immune. The Chicago Reporter established a searchable database detailing the amount paid out per officer in police misconduct settlements. USA Today launched its investigation in partnership with the nonprofit Invisible Institute and discovered a motherlode:

The records obtained include more than 110,000 internal affairs investigations by hundreds of individual departments and more than 30,000 officers who were decertified by 44 state oversight agencies.

This USA Today database lets readers search a list of those 30,000 officers banned in 44 states.

Republicans always say they’re against high levels of government spending (except when deficits skyrocket because of tax cuts). So selling police reform as a way to save cities millions of dollars should appeal to them. Getting rid of brutal police practices will help in the area about which Republicans claim to care the most — the bottom line.

And it will save a lot of innocent lives at the same time. Because Black Lives Matter.

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