Here’s a big investigation by the Baltimore Sun:
On a cold January afternoon, Jerriel Lyles parked his car in front of the P&J Carry Out on East Monument Street and darted inside to buy some food. After paying for a box of chicken, he noticed a big guy in jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap.
“What’s up?” the man said to Lyles. Others, also dressed in jeans and hoodies, blocked the door to the street — making Lyles fear that he would be robbed. Instead, the man identified himself a police officer, frisked Lyles and demanded he sit on the greasy floor. Lyles objected.
“The officer hit me so hard it felt like his radio was in his hand,” Lyles testified about the 2009 incident, after suing Detective David Greene. “The blow was so heavy. My eyes swelled up. Blood was dripping down my nose and out my eye.”
The Baltimore detective offered a different version of events in court, saying that Lyles’ injuries might have resulted from poking himself in the face. He also couldn’t say why officers stopped Lyles, who was not charged with any crime.
But jurors didn’t buy the officer’s explanation. They ruled in Lyles’ favor, and the court ultimately ordered the city to pay him $200,000, the statutory limit in Maryland for most lawsuits against a municipality . . .
Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.
Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.
And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims — if charges were filed at all.
The city has spent $5.7 million on settlements and awards, and another $5.8 million in legal fees. Were it not for the statutory limit (which frankly seems both low and unfair), the former figure would likely be a lot higher.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this year that the city has payed out nearly half a billion dollars in settlements over the past decade, and spent $84.6 million in fees, settlements, and awards last year. The Chicago Police Department is about three times the size of the Baltimore PD. Chicago the city has about four times as many people as Baltimore. Crunch those numbers as you wish. Bloomberg News reported that in 2011, Los Angeles paid out $54 million, while New York paid out a whopping $735 million, although those figures include negligence and other claims unrelated to police abuse. Oakland Police Beat reported in April that the city had paid out $74 million to settle 417 lawsuits since 1990. That’s a little more than $3 million per year. The Denver Post reported in August that the Mile High City paid $13 million over 10 years. The Dallas Morning News reported in May that the city has forked over $6 million since 2011. And last month, Minneapolis Public Radio put that city’s payout at $21 million since 2003.
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.