Civil Liberties

Imagine What We Could Buy If We Didn't Have to Spend Billions on Police Brutality Cases

The numbers are shocking.

Every few weeks, a newspaper somewhere in America reports on a million-dollar settlement paid out in a case of police abuse. Sometimes the figures are jarring. In 2012, Chicago gave Christina Eilman $22.5 million after police released the bipolar woman into a violent neighborhood, where she was beaten and raped. Earlier this year, the NYPD agreed to pay out $18 million to various defendants roughed up at the RNC convention in 2004.

It’s true that most cases result in far smaller payouts, but they can add up to nearly a billion dollars a year for just one city. That’s eye-popping when you consider that state governments collectively spend roughly $10 billion on public assistance programs for the poor. When more money is spent consoling victims of brutality than providing assistance for low-income people, that’s both a fiscal and humanitarian crisis. And while police brutality cases are paid by cities, not states, these numbers place a dollar value on the tremendous breadth and depth of systemic police brutality. 

Consider New York City. In 2012, taxpayers paid $152 million in claims involving the NYPD. That same year, Mayor Bloomberg voted to cut $175 million from childcare and afterschool programs, affecting 47,000 kids. Child programs not only provide relief to working families with maxed-out schedules, they are the best tools the city has to foster an equal society in the long term. Instead the city is spending money settling cases like the one last month involving Officer Eugene Donnelly, who drunkenly barged into a woman’s home one night and “beat the hell out of her.”

The NYPD forecasts it will spend even more on such cases by 2016. With recent stories like the wasted cop who shot a random man six times in April, it seems like the department is on track to do so. To make things worse, the NYPD doesn’t track individual officers who have complaints filed against them, which means troubled cops can go right back into the line of duty.

New York’s policing problems are part of an entrenched culture of cop-warriorism nationwide. In 2007, USA Today found that instances of brutality had surged between 2001 and 2007. While there isn’t a definitive report clarifying whether they’ve risen since, given the suppression of Occupy, a nationwide crackdown on homelessness, and rising settlement costs, it's possible that the violence hasn’t abated. On the whole, cities and the mainstream media are writing off escalating costs as a natural expense of policing, rather than asking why we pay so much for it.

In Los Angeles, where an LAPD officer was recently filmed straddling a homeless woman and punching her face, the city paid out $54 million to rectify officers’ shenanigans in 2011. This was around the time Mayor Eric Garcetti tried closing a $242 million shortfall in part by forcing city employees to forego raises for at least three years. Ironically, the austere budget also sacked overtime pay for police officers, forcing thousands of cops to take off from work every month in lieu of cash. But the LAPD has made a concerted effort to keep officers unaccountable for their antics: last year the city’s Inspector General found that the department systematically “destroys case files, keeps inaccurate and incomplete information on lawsuits, and has no system to learn from workplace liability claims.”

A cursory look at other cities reveals the same trend of elevating costs for police settlements. Those figures take renewed urgency when considered in the context of lost public services. A few years ago, Oakland cut $28 million from educative non-profits while paying out nearly half that amount in misconduct-related legal costs. In a slightly different case related to poor oversight and inept internal affairs management, New Jersey taxpayers paid out $50 million this year for lawsuits filed against various police departments filed by civilians and cops themselves, all while labor-hater Governor Chris Christie cut $887 million from pension contributions.

The problem comes down to a few different causes. First, virtually all departments around the nation police themselves internally and have little to no civilian oversight. Within some departments, this means officers adopt a “blue code of silence” where officer misbehavior is hardly ever recorded or reprimanded. As demonstrated by the NYPD and LAPD, departments do a poor job tracking problem officers and sometimes even destroy their litigation files.

Prosecutors have an extreme reluctance to pick up cases of police abuse. Federal prosecutors decline around 95 percent of such cases for two main reasons: juries are mostly conditioned to side with the police, and various impediments are in place to make prosecution more difficult (federal attorneys cannot argue that an officer acted recklessly or criminal negligence). On the state level, legal quirks like “transactional immunity” in New York make it enormously difficult for prosecutors to use incriminating testimony against officers.  

Some say plaintiffs ask for too much money. Yet as crude a mechanism it is, the threat of litigation is one of the few shields citizens have against police abuse. The problem isn’t high settlement and the solution isn’t tort reform. The problem is police brutality and the solution is less of it. It’s an ugly cost that means so much more when states are spending less than ever on good, generative public services.