Originally published in The American Prospect on September 26, 2014.
As the national conversation around racism and police brutality quickly fades—ramped up briefly in the wake of Michael Brown’s death—U.S. taxpayers remain stuck footing the bills for their local law enforcement’s aggressive behavior. This week alone, Baltimore agreed to pay $49,000 to man who sued over a violent arrest in 2010, Philadelphia agreed to pay $490,000 to a man who was abused and broke his neck while riding in a police van in 2011, and St. Paul agreed to pay $95,000 to a man who suffered a skull injury, a fractured eye socket, and a broken nose in 2012.
In 2013, Chicago paid out a stunning $84.6 million in police misconduct settlements, judgments, and legal fees. Bridgeport, Connecticut, paid a man $198,000 this past spring after video footage captured police shooting him twice with a stun gun, then stomping all over him as he lay on the ground. And in California, Oakland recently agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit a man filed after being shot in the head, leaving him with permanent brain damage. You get the picture.
The thing is, these steep payments rarely come from the police department budgets—instead they’re financed through the city’s general coffers or the city’s insurance plan. It’s the taxpayer, not the law enforcement agency, who pays the price.
“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”
Other scholars have proposed this, too. Between 2006 and 2011, the total number of claims filed for offenses like false arrest and police brutality in New York City increased by 43 percent. So Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA, suggested the city could take money from its police budget to pay the associated legal costs. “Perhaps if the department held its own purse strings, it would find more to learn from litigation,” Schwartz wrote in the New York Times. This past June, Schwartz published a study that concluded individual cops almost never pay for their misconduct—rather, “governments paid approximately 99.98 percent of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”
But the politics of pushing police departments to change or make concessions can be difficult. A recent Gallup poll found that across the country, 56 percent of adults hold “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in the police as an institution. If a majority of Americans feel positively about law enforcement, gathering the political will needed to compel change becomes tough.
“Most political leaders don’t have the guts for it, or the stomach for it, so we go around and around and cities pay out buckets of money from their own funds or they buy insurance,” said Harris. “As a result, the settlement costs do not act as a deterrence.”
Video footage might help to change this: The vast proliferation of video recording devices—ranging from individual cell phones to police surveillance cameras—have forced many citizens to watch incidents they might have otherwise tried to deny ever happened. Law enforcement and city officials, too, can’t as easily obfuscate brutal incidents from the record.
It’s possible that the combination of accessible video footage and increasingly expensive lawsuits might at last force cities to re-evaluate the cost of police brutality. This month, a disturbing video surfaced of a Baltimore police officer repeatedly punching a man in June; a $5 million lawsuit was then filed against the cop and the footage will be used as evidence. After seeing the video, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake criticized the police department and directed the commissioner to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address his agency’s systemic brutality.
The following week, two city council members proposed legislation that would require every Baltimore police officer to wear a body camera, in order to reduce instances of improper behavior.
This is all mildly encouraging, but as long as the cost of the jury verdicts, settlements and legal fees fall outside of the police budgets, the economic incentives for departmental reform will stay low. It’s also important to note that filing a civil rights lawsuit is not easy; the overwhelming majority of claims do not result in huge payouts nor is it easy to secure legal representation—even if the plaintiff was clearly wronged, notwithstanding all the new technological means to collect evidence. The cases take a long time and the pay can be precarious. David Packman, a private researcher who established The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project says that both the lack of financial penalties “sufficient to outrage taxpayers” and the fact that “fewer and fewer lawyers take on police misconduct cases” helps explain why localities don’t feel much pressure to introduce meaningful systemic reforms.
Unfortunately, as long as these trends persist, the taxpayer bill is likely to grow.