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Why the poor often pay for police misconduct with their pocketbooks

Floyd Dent tells his story to the media on March 25 at his attorney’s office in Novi, Mich. (Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News via AP)

Floyd Dent, a black man from Inkster, Mich., was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in January when a white Inkster police officer dragged Dent out of his vehicle, put him in an apparent choke-hold, punched him repeatedly in the head and used a stun gun on him.

That officer, William Melendez, was fired and is now on trial, charged with misconduct in office and mistreatment of a prisoner, after dashboard camera video of the incident became public.

And now the residents of the small Michigan town will pay the cost for Melendez’s conduct — literally.

Late last month, the city of Inkster settled a lawsuit with Dent for nearly $1.4 million. According to the Detroit Free Press, Inkster’s financial manager said the city would levy a tax on property owners to help cover the cost of compensating Dent.

Dashcam video from Jan. 28 shows an Inkster police officer punching Floyd Dent in the head while another officer tries to handcuff him. (Video: Inkster Police Department)

Inkster is a city of about 25,000 residents, according to the most recent Census figures, and the median income there is just $26,500. Seventy-three percent of Inkster’s residents are black, and nearly 40 percent of the people in the city live below the poverty line.

[Black motorist beaten by white Inkster officer will receive $1.4 million settlement]

There is a bitter irony to the situation, but it’s not unusual that the very people who are most beset by police violence are the ones who wind up paying for it with their pocketbooks.

When victims or their families are paid out by cities and municipalities in excessive-force cases that are settled or tried, taxpayers pay every time, highlighting the direct relationship between the social and financial costs of police violence.

In Chicago: $84 million in one year.

Los Angeles: $54 million.

Philadelphia: $40 million in cases brought since 2009.

[Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide]

In Inkster, the sum is small and deals with just one case. But for its residents, the reality will be unavoidable: The tax will amount to a $178.67 on a home valued at about $55,400, the Free Press estimates.

“The price of this is enormous, and it probably is hardest on those who can least afford it and whose communities are most egregiously beset with the misconduct problems,” noted Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, which has studied the high financial and social costs of police misconduct in Chicago.

[U.S. cities pay out millions to settle police lawsuits]

In Chicago, police-related settlements over the last decade cost the city more than $500 million according to a study published by the group last year.

Everyone pays the price, including renters who are likely to be least able to afford it.

“They not only face the financial burden and the reduction of services, these dollars could have improved their schools could have given them more cops on the streets to improve their neighborhoods,” Shaw said. “Instead they were transfer payments to victims and victims’ attorneys.”

Shaw added: “It takes a terrible toll.”

In Inkster, residents are asking why they will now be forced to shoulder this burden.

“It’s not our responsibility that there was mistakes made with the police department and the city,” resident Juanita Davis told WDIV in Detroit.

[Thousands of people fatally shot by police, few prosecutions]

“It is absolutely true that the innocent citizens in Inkster shouldn’t have to put up with this, and they don’t have to,” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “They ought to demand of their city council people, of their mayor, of their police chief and police officers — all of whom are accountable to the public — that they police this city by respecting the people of the city and complying with basic principles of decency and the constitution.

“This is really an opportunity for residents of Inkster and any other municipality to say to the officials that enough is enough.”

The true cost of police misconduct is rarely this clear. Piecemeal investigations have revealed astounding costs over a period of years.

Critics have likened excessive lawsuits and settlements to a lottery for alleged victims. Often, the expensive legal settlements prompt calls for tort reform; some states have even capped judgments that can be paid out to victims.

But not only do body cameras and dashboard cameras hold some promise of being a form of oversight that deters misconduct by officers; it also makes it clear when accusations of misconduct are justified, the ACLU’s Korobkin said.

“The reasonable response to high settlement amounts is to stop violating people’s constitutional rights — to take greater care that police officers aren’t trained to just leave the legal issues up to the lawyers but rather are trained to take responsibility for their actions and not violate the civil rights and constitutional rights of the people that they serve,” he said. “High settlement figures are a warning signs that something is not right within the department, it’s not a reason to complain about the constitution.”

MORE READING: As police body cameras catch on, a debate surfaces: Who gets to watch?

Detroit-area officer to stand trial for driver’s beating