It’s probably unwise to draw any conclusions or comparisons about city police forces based on these figures, though, for several reasons. First, there’s the matter of caps on damages. Some cities have them, some don’t. That will have a huge impact on the final figures. Second, we don’t know the terms of these settlements. Some lawsuit settlement terms are sealed, and depending on the state’s open records laws, may not be accessible to the press. Third, the figures can also be affected by whether city attorneys adopt a strategy of aggressively fighting lawsuits or quickly settling them. A settlement could be an admission of wrongdoing, or it could be the city deciding it would cost more money to take the case to court. And finally, the figures could be influenced by still other factors, like the availability and willingness of attorneys to take these lawsuits (which, again, often face long odds), or how sympathetic a city’s judges and juries might be to law enforcement.
In theory, the cost of these lawsuits — which are of course ultimately paid by taxpayers — are supposed to inspire better oversight, better government, and better policing. When taxpayers see their hard-earned money spent to compensate victims of police misconduct, they vote for political leaders who will hold cops more accountable. Or at least that’s the theory. I’m not sure how effective that is. I’ve seen little evidence that people generally vote on these issues, even in municipal elections. (The last mayoral race in New York may be one exception.)
Cops themselves are protected by the doctrine qualified immunity, which makes it difficult for a plaintiff to even get into court. But even if you do, and you win (also far from a given), in the vast majority of cases, the cop himself won’t have to pay any damages. (It happens, but it’s rare.) Some critics have called for police to be required to pay these damages themselves, as a deterrent. That might well work. The problem is that an officer did significant damage to someone, they’re unlikely have the money to make that person whole. Perhaps the best option is to take money from the cops at fault over a long period of time, then supplement that with public money. I’ve also seen suggestions that settlements be paid from police pension funds. I can see the appeal there, but it doesn’t seem wise to penalize all cops for the bad ones.
Of course, false reports of police abuse happen, too. All the more reason to move to the widespread use of dashboard and lapel cameras, provided they come with the appropriate protections.