Originally published in The American Prospect on July 16, 2015.
On July 17, 2014, New York City police officers choked Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island, to death. This week, nearly one year later, the city announced that it would pay the Garner family $5.9 million to settle their wrongful-death claim.
“Financial compensation is certainly not everything, and it can’t bring Mr. Garner back. But it is our way of creating balance and giving a family a certain closure,” said the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer to The New York Times.
Families of police brutality victims deserve to be compensated, no doubt. A different question, however, is should police departments be required to pay for their misconduct too?
As I’ve written previously, these steep police brutality payments rarely come from the police department budgets. Rather, cities pay for them through their general coffers or their city insurance plan.
The NYPD has a budget of over $4 billion. Even if the police department wasn’t expected to bear 100 percent of the liability, what if they were asked to pay a share—say 25 percent—of the settlement costs? Having a cut to their budget for misbehavior could motivate senior police officials to be more responsive to police misconduct and lead departmental reforms.
“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues, told me in September. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”
The $5.9 million for Eric Garner’s family will come from a general New York City fund made up of local taxes, fees, fines, and tickets. (No state and federal money will be used.) Taxpayer dollars also finance the NYPD—so either way the taxpayer will be footing the bill—but still, as it stands, the NYPD’s budget is left untouched.
According to data from the New York City Comptroller’s Bureau of Law and Adjustment (BLA), in fiscal year 2012, New York City paid out $485.9 million personal injury and property damage tort settlements and judgments. The largest portion of that came from claims filed against the NYPD—$151.9 million in total. According to their report, “tort claims against the NYPD include, but are not limited to, allegations of police misconduct, civil rights violations, and personal injury and/or property damage arising out of motor vehicle accidents involving police vehicles.”
The question of “who pays” matters particularly as the number of tort claims has trended upward between 2008 and 2012. According to the data, the proportion of new NYPD tort claims rose from 25 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2012.
As Doug Turetsky, the Chief of Staff at the New York City Independent Budget Office pointed out, the police department’s budget has also grown significantly since the 1980s.
“It’s a strange sociological story,” muses Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans. “On the one hand we allow the police to beat up victims and on the other hand we pay the victims large sums of money. There are no other occupations I can think of where people would not get punished. If I as a professor cost Columbia University $100,000—maybe even $50,000—they would have fired me. How expensive do police mistakes have to be?”
Though the public may likely protest any huge cutback in police funding, the city council and mayor could always decide to restore funding, if necessary. This would at least help to create a better system of incentives. If police departments felt they had something to lose, then maybe fewer Eric Garners would die needlessly.