Poisonous cops, total immunity: Why an epidemic of police abuse is actually going unpunished

Departments across America get hit with a shocking number of lawsuits—but most are paid off and swept under the rug

Published May 13, 2015 5:15PM (EDT)

                        (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1319155p1.html'>Kozorez Vladislav</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Kozorez Vladislav via Shutterstock)

The death of Freddie Gray while he was in the custody of the Baltimore Police is just the latest police-involved death over the last several months that has prompted us to question just how widespread this kind of alleged misconduct really is. A couple of months back, in a seminal address on law enforcement and race, FBI Director James Comey told a Georgetown University audience that there could be no definitive answer to that question, because the federal government lacked even the most basic information on the number of civilian deaths in police custody.

“How can we address concerns about 'use of force,' how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings, if we don’t have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents?” Comey asked.

But this national blindspot about the scope and scale of police misconduct also extends to the hundreds of millions of dollars paid out over the years by local, county, and state governments to settle thousands of civil cases prompted by allegations of police misconduct and the use of excessive and deadly force.

There is no federal requirement that the nation’s 18,000 police agencies report these settlements. Unless a local media outlet bothers digging, the public rarely learns just how expensive police misconduct can be. When a media outlet does digs in, and follows the money, these settlements can invariably help tell a bigger story.

Thanks to the reporting by the Baltimore Sun, readers learned that in a review of 100 lawsuits brought by civilians against the police, a sum of $6 million dollars was paid out to settle the claims. The paper discovered that the allegations that surfaced in the Gray case, that police failed to get Gray medical attention in a timely manner, were echoed in the civil suits, in which “dozens of residents accused police of inflicting severe injuries during questionable arrests and disregarding appeals for medical attention.”

The Sun also reported that, from June 2012 through up until April 2015, officials running the Baltimore City Detention Center refused to admit 2,600 detainees who were in police custody but in no physical condition to be incarcerated.

“There’s just no effort to track nationally the allegations of police misconduct that these suits and settlements reveal,”says Joanna Schwartz, a professor of law at UCLA and one of the nation’s leading experts on police misconduct civil litigation. “These costs from lawsuits translate to money lost for other priorities in a time of austerity for local governments.”

No matter how big the settlement might be, Schwartz notes that police officers enjoy a qualified immunity that shields them from personal liability for whatever actions they take while on the job. Schwartz asked 70 of the nation’s largest police departments to submit the total amount they paid out to settle police misconduct cases from 2006 to 2011. Forty-four of the 70 agencies responded. All told, they paid out $730 million to settle 9,225 civil rights suits. Yet in just one half of one percent of those settlements were officers required to pay anything.

Schwartz says few local governments mine the lawsuits for critical data on patterns of police behavior that generate the lawsuits in the first place. Schwartz points to the NYPD’s CompStat program as an applicable model that tracks major crimes by precinct on a weekly basis and is credited with helping the New York City significantly reduce crime. “What gets measured gets managed. Why not use the same strategy when it comes to police misconduct revealed through lawsuits?”

In New York City alone, during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three term tenure, NYPD payouts were in excess of $1 billion dollars. In FY 2013 the City of New York paid out more than $138 million. In FY 2014, that number spiked to nearly $217 million, just to settle claims from allegations of false arrest, excessive force and civil rights violations. Just imagine what the national total of these settlements must be.

Schwartz’s idea of a CompStat approach to tracking police misconduct suits already is being implemented in New York City. Getting a handle on the huge dollar amount in annual NYPD payouts, as well as zeroing in on the police behavior that prompted them, has become a major focus of the city's comptroller, Scott Stringer. Stringer has inaugurated ClaimStat, modeled on the NYPD’s crime tracking precinct based CompStat, that tracks the law suit settlements made on behalf of all of the City’s agencies including the NYPD.

“For far too long, big cities and small towns across the country have accepted rising claims and settlements—and the injuries and injustice that precipitate them—as the cost of doing business,” says Stringer. “ClaimStat is designed to change that by using data to help identify hot spots before they become problems, just as the NYPD did with CompStat two decades ago. As a result, my office is working closely with Commissioner Bratton’s Risk Assessment Unit to share claims data in real time and obtain evidence that helps us to separate legitimate claims from frivolous suits.”

Stringer’s ClaimStat webpage cites Portland, Oregon’s, police department as an example of an agency that used their settlement data to effect meaningful and timely reforms. He explained: "[W]hen the police auditor observed a pattern of claims that suggesting that officers did to understand the basis to enter a home without a warrant, the City Attorney’s office made a training video on the issue, and the problem practically disappeared.”

Last month, the recently established office of the Inspector General for the NYPD issued a report which found that, even though the NYPD was doing a better job using data from the claims against it to track officer performance, there still was “no simple way to determine what percentage of the 15,000 lawsuits filed in this five years resulted in legitimate findings of excessive force, despite the obvious value of such information.”

“There is still a total disconnect between these payouts and an officer’s career,” says Andrew Stoll, a Brooklyn based plaintiff lawyer whose firm has specialized in police tort claims. “We have seen generations of officers who go on to become a sergeant and then a Lieutenant who we successfully sued five times.”

The New York’s Daily News reported in 2014 that one “hard charging” Bronx narcotics detective was named in 28 lawsuits going back to 2006 that cost the city $884,000 to settle. The newspaper identified 55 other officers out of the NYPD’s 34,000 who were each sued at least ten times and cost the City $6 million in settlements.

Lawsuits and settlements are just one way to track police credibility and performance. Cynthia Conti-Cook is a staff attorney with the special litigation unite of New York's Legal Aid Society, and she’s working on a database that includes not only NYPD officers whose names have surfaced in lawsuits, but also those whose sworn testimony was found by the courts to be not credible, or who gathered evidence that was thrown out because the manner in which they collected it was unconstitutional.

“There maybe just a few bad apples, but they are poisonous, because they can teach younger officers ways to write things up to avoid scrutiny,” says Conti-Cook. “We don’t want to believe it. It’s hard to acknowledge that police officers that have so much power over people’s lives are capable of abusing it.”

Perhaps, this is one of those issues where budget hawks and police accountability advocates can find common ground. The only thing worse than paying out hundreds of millions, maybe billions of dollars, for bad police conduct, is to fail to learn from the human pain and suffering the payouts represent.

By Robert Hennelly

MORE FROM Robert Hennelly

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Baltimore Freddie Gray Police Abuse Police Accountability Police Violence Racism