Re-Funding The Police: Taxpayers On The Hook For Billions of Dollars Of Law Enforcement Lawsuit Settlements

from the chasing-bad-money-with-worse-money dept

Apparently, it’s not enough that we pay their salaries and buy their uniforms, vehicles, and weapons. We’re also expected to foot the bill when law enforcement officers fuck up so badly they can’t even avail themselves of qualified immunity, a Supreme Court-created legal doctrine that has been watered down for decades, allowing all but the most egregious violators of rights to walk away from their misconduct.

The biggest cities cause the most damage to taxpayers, as is to be expected. New York City alone managed to rack up a half-billion in lawsuit settlements over two years, thanks to officers who have rarely had to fear being punished by their employer for violating policies and rights.

Nearly every law enforcement officer in the nation is indemnified by the cities they work for, which means that losing a lawsuit means the officer in the wrong loses nothing of value. They don’t lose their own money and, in most cases, they don’t even lose their jobs or law enforcement certification.

Law enforcement agencies love the powers they’ve been granted. They have almost zero interest in the accountability that’s supposed to be bundled with these powers. When anyone threatens to make officers more accountable, government officials, law enforcement “leaders,” and police unions step up to decry proposed measures, claiming almost any attempt to pair power with responsibility will threaten public safety.

In what is surely an undercount of the true fiscal cost, the Washington Post has totalled up the financial damage to taxpayers caused by police officers who violate rights. Using public records requests and court documents, the Washington Post claims the total is at least $3 billion over the last decade.

The Post collected data on nearly 40,000 payments at 25 of the nation’s largest police and sheriff’s departments within the past decade, documenting more than $3.2 billion spent to settle claims.

Caveat 1: this only covers the nation’s 25 largest law enforcement agencies — a number that includes the NYPD, which has shown it’s capable of racking up a quarter billion annually in settlements. There are nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, which indicates this number is only the outsized tip of the iceberg.

Caveat 2: this excludes settlements under $1,000. This may have made the math simpler, but ignores the fact that even small settlements add up to real money if there’s enough of them.

Far more valuably, this report identifies officers costing taxpayers far more money than they should. Because law enforcement agencies rarely punish officers for wrongdoing, citizens are repeatedly asked to bail out the worst officers.

The Post found that more than 1,200 officers in the departments surveyed had been the subject of at least five payments. More than 200 had 10 or more.

If city officials are truly interested in saving residents money, they could just perform a little due diligence and pressure agencies to fire repeat offenders.

Officers whose conduct was at issue in more than one payment accounted for more than $1.5 billion, or nearly half of the money spent by the departments to resolve allegations, The Post found. In some cities, officers repeatedly named in misconduct claims accounted for an even larger share. For example, in Chicago, officers who were subject to more than one paid claim accounted for more than $380 million of the nearly $528 million in payments.

City officials may not be able to catch onto patterns of abuse, what with their election cycle turnover. But cop shops surely know which cops are the worst and which ones are causing them the most legal headaches. And they’ve done nothing. This may have something to do with extremely restrictive union contracts that make firing bad officers almost impossible. Or it may have something to do with bad cops being considered good cops, because they generate plenty of arrests and busts. And when budgets are on the line, the ends justify the means.

Settlements also contribute to this lack of accountability. When governments feel a suit is unwinnable because an officer is clearly in the wrong, settlement agreements silence the wronged citizen by placing restrictions on their discussions of the lawsuit while appending boilerplate saying the sued officer and the city overseeing them admit no wrongdoing. And if there was no wrongdoing (at least according to the settlement agreement), there’s no reason to note this lawsuit and its allegations in the officer’s permanent record, ensuring everyone remains ignorant of past misconduct.

That allows this cycle to continue indefinitely. The cost to the American public is far higher than the billions of dollars paid out to victims of police misconduct. The cycle encourages law enforcement agencies to remain insular, separating themselves from the people they serve with opacity and self-serving statements about standing up for what’s right and good, but almost never where it matters most: when policing their own.

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Comments on “Re-Funding The Police: Taxpayers On The Hook For Billions of Dollars Of Law Enforcement Lawsuit Settlements”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:


Having settlements come out of the department budget would get some attention but if you really wanted to make the punishments hurt the right people they’d be levied against individual officers and their superiors personally.

It’s one thing to be dismissive of the law, rights and lives of the public when someone else foots the bill but if you are the one holding the check suddenly there’s a very real incentive to care about those things and if you don’t seeing or hearing about a fellow officer sued into the ground will probably hammer the lesson home rather well making repeat or even initial offenses much less likely to happen.

debilero says:

Re: Re:

I completely disagree. The community pays as the community doesn’t fix the problem. If cops get insurance the whole country pays. Even police districts that are not shitting on their community if they even exist. The incentive for change should come from the community themselves and since there is a lack of push back from the community the problem is non existent to very small. the community deserves every settlement. That’s democracy.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Good-bye personal responsibility

Because it’s not enough that the courts treat the police as the dumbest people on the planet apparently everyone else should too…

Until and unless police, their unions and those running their departments are literally controlled by the public such that the only time a cop violates a right/life is when they were forced to and had no option to refuse the police are responsible for their own actions and should be held accountable accordingly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Oakland tried this.

Oakland passed Risk Management Incentive Program (RMIP) in 1997. The program would have settlements come out of each public service dept to prompt departments of clearing out the problem employees. They ended it in 2004 after the Rough Rider scandal broke and paid $10 million in settlements. The police dept cried that under RMIP, they’d have nothing left.

Turns out, during the time under RMIP, the City Council allowed the departments to keep their budgets despite paying settlements because it would have a negative impact.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:


I think it should actually go the way that MDs have to do, carry malpractice insurance.

Once they are sued for civil rights violations, and lose, their insurance carrier will not cover them anymore, so any future settlements would have to come out of the cop’s pockets.

Or they quit instead.

Or they are required to carry insurance and if they can’t, then they are fired with cause.

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:


If they were just “doing their jobs” why do they need to pay out over a billion dollars for violating civil rights of the people? If you consider violating civil rights part of “doing their job” it sure sounds like you’re a part of the problem.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:


“You can stop being angry at him for losing money you chose to throw away by suing officers doing their job, and sign up yourselves if you weren’t such cowards.”

No, the cowards are the people quitting their jobs because they face consequences for being bad at it. Nobody here is afraid of being a cop, some people just aren’t cut out for it – such as your family, it appears – and we’re grown up enough to know that you don’t have to personally do something to recognise when it’s being done badly.

Here’s hoping that his replacement was someone who wasn’t so bad at his job that lives and money were constantly in danger simply by them being on duty.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:


and sign up yourselves if you weren’t such cowards.

Ah yes, the old ‘don’t criticize my job unless you want to do it yourself’ trope.

I’m not interested in mopping out toilets, but I’ll be goddamned if I wouldn’t criticize a janitor for doing a shitty job.

If training is what you think is the problem, perhaps YOU should work behind the cash register at McDonald’s, so you can see what accountability looks like. Then have your son tell all his cop friends.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

The Post found that more than 1,200 officers in the departments surveyed had been the subject of at least five payments. More than 200 had 10 or more.

Few things make clear how unwilling police departments are to do anything about the ‘few bad apples’ than someone screwing up so badly that they not only get the department sued but in such an egregious manner that the department would rather have the city foot the tab rather than go to court, and who not only keep their job but are allowed to screw up in such a monumental fashion multiple times.

‘We will keep an officer who costs the city literal millions due to their horrific conduct rather than fire them’ rather puts to rest any idea that it’s only ‘a few bad apples’ that the departments give even the slightest damn about doing anything about them.

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: What's the

It really makes me wonder what the supervisors or unions are thinking. Let’s see this officer had 5 lawsuits against him. Should he be fired? He has 7, 8, 9 lawsuits- yet he still isn’t fired?

I can maybe understand the union blaming “disgruntled” citizens for 1 or or 3 lawsuits, but an officer is involved in 10 OR MORE?? And nothing happens?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It really makes me wonder what the supervisors or unions are thinking. Let’s see this officer had 5 lawsuits against him. Should he be fired? He has 7, 8, 9 lawsuits- yet he still isn’t fired?

Sadly I can probably make a pretty accurate guess.

Union/Supervisor: Sure he’s cost the city millions in settlements due to his actions but we’re not paying any of that and if we make clear that violating rights is a no-no by canning him that’ll damage morale since other officers will have to actually think before acting, so best let him stay.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Wyrm (profile) says:

Something I heard: “Nobody defunds the police as effectively as the police themselves.”

I can’t understand how police departments are the only employer who will defend you when you mess your job that badly. You can cost them millions or even billions, not to mention how badly they hurt your reputation, and still they will do their best to keep you on the job.

On unrelated matters, it’s amazing how powerful the police unions are. Funny how they are the only union that is supported by politicians.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Liability insurance for police

I think police should be required to pay for their own liability insurance like doctors and lawyers do.

This newspaper article explains in details how this would safeguard taxpayers from bad police officers. Basically provide a mechanism to weed out the bad police officers by pricing out them by high insurance premiums.

Designerfx (profile) says:

I see an additional effect, in theory

In theory…wouldn’t the worst offenders getting away with everything raise the baseline for any marginally bad cop who’s less stupid about getting caught, to actually get caught for anything, thus perpetuating the cycle?

IE: bad cop with 10 settlements = everyone hates him
terrible cop with a history of atrocities but not as stupid with 0 settlements = looks great on the record now.

Sounds like this is how it already operates, they’re presumed innocent until they suddenly rack up a million settlements.

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