Bad Cop: 7 Cities Where Shocking Police Abuses Cost Taxpayers Millions

When it comes to interactions between regular citizens and police on the street, the police hold all the cards. They can, and often do, act however they want. One of the few meaningful mechanisms for restitution if you are a victim of police misconduct is to sue for damages. The costs of these lawsuits and payouts add up, and bad police behavior takes a toll not only on our civil liberties, but also on a city's budget.

It's worth mentioning that lawsuits against the police rarely result in million-dollar payouts for victims, are difficult to win, and represent only a fairly small slice of total reports of police misconduct. Also, the reported costs of settlements and judgments to victims often exclude fees paid to attorneys representing the city, so in many cases the real numbers are higher.

This list doesn't include every example of police misconduct or every study about how much it costs, but below are some recent instances of reports that detail just how much money police misconduct costs taxpayers. The point here isn't to argue that people shouldn't sue cops. They should, if they have a good case. The cops should simply give people fewer reasons to sue them.

1. Chicago

Lieutenant Jon Burge is in many ways the posterchild for police brutality. He oversaw a torture regime at the Chicago Police Department from 1973-1991 that included 64 other cops directly and an untold number of police who were aware of what was going on. According to a recent report, over 100 African Americans were allegedly tortured under his watch.

As the Chicago Reader reported in 2003, charges against Burge and his crew included “electric shock, suffocation, burnings, attacks on the genitals, severe beating, and mock executions.”

Burge was eventually prosecuted by the US attorney and sentenced to four and a half years for perjury, though according to the report the Cook County State Attorney never prosecuted any officers for torture or for covering it up. The “blue code of silence” plays a large role in perpetuating corruption.

The report, by the University of Illinois at Chicago, claims that corruption and abuse of power are rampant problems in the Chicago Police Department. The authors looked at CPD corruption dating back to 1960, and conclude that  “[t]oleration of corruption, or at least resigned acceptance, appears to be the order of the day for at least the past 50 years.”

Top Chicago officials have allowed (or created) a culture of impunity for officers. A separate study the authors cite claims only “19 of 10,149 (or less than 2%) civilian complaints of excessive force, illegal searches, racial abuse, sexual abuse and false arrests between 2002 and 2004 led to police suspensions of a week or more.”

Over the last decade, police misconduct lawsuits against the city and out-of-court settlements “have cost taxpayers several hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when all levels of government have to cut services and raise taxes,” according to the University of Illinois report. Defending cops against litigation has cost Chicago more than $82.5 million since 2003, and “Jon Burge cases have cost local taxpayers more than $53 million since 1998.”

2. New York

According to a 2012 report  from NYC's Comptroller's office, the city paid out $185.6 million in claims for fiscal year 2011. That's a 35% increase over the previous year, which came in at $137.3 million in settled claims. Fiscal year 2011 saw “an historical high of 8,882 claims filed” against the NYPD, with a 55% rise in claims against the NYPD over the past five years.

Stop-and-frisk, the program under which NYPD officers stop and search people, mostly young men of color, has likely contributed to the rise in lawsuits against the city. Gothamist suggests that “dubious marijuana arrests and outright bogus trespassing cases” also played a role in the increase in lawsuits.

According to the report, the NYPD doesn't track individual officers named in complaints, which the Comptroller’s office recommends doing. Joanna Schwartz, in a 2011 New York Times op-ed, argues that “[b]ecause the department ignores lawsuits, it cannot analyze or learn from them; instead, the city effectively writes off these suits as the extraordinarily high cost of doing police business.”

These numbers only add further evidence to the inescapable conclusion that the NYPD is either incapable or unwilling to police itself.

[Full disclosure: I am in the middle of several lawsuits against New York City related to Occupy right now. The lawsuit in which I am a plaintiff calls for the creation of an independent inspector general to watch over the NYPD.]

3. Oakland

The Oakland Police Department came under national scrutiny after its handling of Occupy resulted in images of Oakland that resembled a war zone. According to the East Bay Express, “the total legal costs of ongoing police officer misconduct totaled $13,149,000 in fiscal year 2010-11.” The story goes on to say that the families of Derrick Jones – shot dead by the OPD – and Raheim Brown – shot dead by an Oakland Unified School District cop – each “have filed separate $10 million claims against the city.”

An Occupy Oakland lawsuit filed in January on behalf of 400 protesters who were jailed but never charged could also be expensive for the city.

In an example of how a department can retaliate against cops who break the blue code of silence, Jonathan Bellusa, the partner of the cop who shot Raheim Brown "said in a claim filed against the district that he had been placed on leave, stripped of his badge and gun, and subjected to psychological evaluations because he came forward with discrepancies involving the shooting.”

Bellusa's attorney refers to him in the above-linked story as “a reluctant whistle-blower.”

4. Los Angeles

There might not be a single police force in the US more closely associated with police brutality than the LAPD. After decades of reports of brutality culminated in the beating of Rodney King in 1991, and the notorious Rampart scandal in the late '90s – which implicated 70 cops in cases of beatings and false imprisonment related to it anti-gang unit – the LAPD was put under federal oversight in 2001. This oversight, called a consent decree, resulted in the implementation of procedures designed to curb police corruption, and was lifted in 2009 after a judge found that the LAPD had sufficiently reformed itself.

There are no timely, comprehensive reports I could find detailing the costs of settling cases of police misconduct in LA, but there have been a few recent high-profile cases. In 2009, the city paid almost $13 million to plaintiffs in the May Day melee lawsuit, filed after police beat immigration-rights activists with batons and fired rubber bullets at them in 2007. According to the LA Times, that payout came one week after another high-profile case related to the Rampart scandal resulted in a $20.5 million settlement. The city at that point had already paid $75 million in Rampart-related lawsuits. Some estimates put the total potential cost at $125 million. 

In 2012, a jury awarded $23 million to a 13-year-old boy who was shot and paralyzed by the LAPD while he was playing with a toy gun.

It's not just civilians who sue the LAPD; sometimes it's the officers themselves. According to a different LA Times piece:

“City records show that from 2005 to 2010, [LAPD] officers have sued the department over workplace issues more than 250 times. The city has paid settlements or verdicts totaling more than $18 million in about 45 of those cases and has lost several other verdicts worth several million dollars more in cases it is appealing, a review of the records shows.”

5. Milwaukee

Milwaukee cops' misconduct has cost the city more than $14 million over the past 10 years, according to a group of residents who compiled a list of 1,200 complaints. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the group claims the Milwaukee police department engages in excessive use of force and racial profiling. The Journal Sentinel details numerous cases of police brutalizing people of color, and includes this quote, from Brenda Bell-White, a member of the coalition that compiled the list:

"This treatment is reminiscent of how African Americans were treated during slavery and Jim Crow," she said. "This is evidence that Jim Crow is alive and well in Milwaukee. It is just called MPD's traffic stop program."

Author and law professor Michelle Alexander has noted that the current system of mass incarceration that disproportionately imprisons people of color is a form of modern-day Jim Crow.

6. Denver

Between 2002 and 2010, the city of Denver paid out over $10 million in police misconduct settlements and judgements, according to the ACLU of Colorado. Denver police have a reputation for using excessive force, sometimes for the smallest infractions. Alexander Landau was pulled over after allegedly making an illegal left turn and beaten by three cops.

The city eventually paid $795,000 to settle the case, but unfortunately for Landau and his supporters, the local investigation into the beating hasn't gone anywhere, and the Department of Justice decided not to pursue federal charges.

The ACLU of Colorado created the Race 2 Justice campaign to highlight cases of excessive force; its slogan is “Police brutality is killing us.”

7. Cleveland

WKYC's Tom Meyer reported in January that police misconduct cost Cleveland over $8 million over the past decade, though that figure doesn't include attorney fees, so the real cost is higher. As with many police misconduct cases, Cleveland cops rarely if ever get fired. The police union doesn't “know of any officer who has been suspended or fired for excessive force,” according to Meyer. If there is an investigation at all, the officer is reassigned to office duty and continues to collect full pay.

The mother of Kenny Smith, shot dead by Cleveland police, claims that her son "wasn't into guns," despite the cops' assertion that Smith, an aspiring rapper, was carrying a gun. The family has hired a lawyer to look into the death. Another family recently settled a wrongful death suit for $1 million after police shot and killed Ricardo Mason.

There are many more cases of police corruption, brutality and misconduct than are mentioned here, from post-Katrina New Orleans to the continuing problems in New Jersey police departments following internal affair procedures. Cities nationwide need to implement stronger reforms and rein in their police forces, or else we'll have to keep paying for their bad behavior.


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