No accountability: How the civil justice system fails black Americans killed by police
On June 19, 2018, Antwon Rose at just 17 years old joined the long line of Black Americans shot and killed by police officers. Rose, denied justice in life, was similarly denied justice in death: On March 22, 2019, he joined the long line of Black Americans shot and killed by police officers who were subsequently acquitted by the criminal justice system.
Officer Michael Rosfeld pulled Rose and another teen over in a traffic stop. Rose and the other teen fled. Rosfeld opened fire, shooting Rose in the face, back, and arm. Rosfeld gave inconsistent testimony as to whether Rose was armed. In fact, he was not. Furthermore, video evidence confirmed that Rose was running away from Rosfeld, thereby affirming that he was not a threat to Rosfeld at the time of the shooting.
Nevertheless, as has been shown time and time again, even compelling video evidence to the contrary is not enough to overcome a jury’s inclination to side with police officers. The trial for Rosfeld began on March 19, 2019. The jury delivered its not-guilty verdict three days later after only four hours of deliberation.
Disappointment in the criminal justice system often leads the families of Black Americans killed by police to the civil system. Last August, Rose’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the borough of East Pittsburgh and other officials, including Rosfeld. Such lawsuits seek monetary compensation for families for the harm they have suffered as a result of the negligence that killed their loved ones.
For many families, interestingly enough, their wrongful death lawsuits never even go to trial. They are instead settled out of court. The parents of Michael Brown settled their wrongful death lawsuit with the city of Ferguson, Missouri, for $1.5 million. Philando Castile’s mother was awarded nearly $3 million from the settlement of her wrongful death lawsuit against the city of St. Anthony, Minnesota. The family of Walter Scott settled its wrongful death lawsuit with the city of North Charleston, South Carolina, for $6.5 million. In what was described as the largest settlement the city had ever reached in a lawsuit stemming from a shooting by police, the city of Cleveland, Ohio, awarded $6 million to the family of Tamir Rice.
Families that do take their wrongful death lawsuits to trial can see substantial damages. A Maryland jury awarded the family of Korryn Gaines $36 million in damages in February 2018. But those damages can just as easily be taken away. A judge overturned the jury’s award less than a year later.
Like the criminal justice system, the civil law system is meant to hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions. That cities have offered the families of the victims of police-involved shootings monetary payments, whether through settlement or judgment, is at least a practical acknowledgment that some level of police misconduct occurred. Presumably, then, these payments are meant to represent an attempt at accountability.
But to what extent is accountability achieved through these payments?
Some evidence gathered by the Center for Justice and Democracy at New York Law School shows that the spotlight that civil lawsuits shine on incidents of police misconduct push police departments toward reforming their practices. After Jeremy McDole was shot and killed by police while sitting in his wheelchair, his family pursued civil recourse against the city of Wilmington, Delaware, and its police department. The city settled with the family for $1.5 million. It also promised to reformulate its de-escalation tactics, officer training, and policies on the use of force. The police chief expanded upon the agreement months after the December 2016 settlement, further committing the department to the reform of its training methods on mental health issues. The shooting death of Darius Pinex in 2011 led to a $2.34 million settlement for his family in civil court and proposals for a number of reforms within Chicago’s Federal Civil Rights Litigation Division.
These are important reforms that should be implemented. They take the first steps toward ensuring that the misconduct acknowledged by the civil payments never happens again. However, payments from civil settlements and judgments fail to hold to account those from whom accountability is most needed: the police officers involved in the shootings.
Having escaped criminal punishment, police officers escape consequences from the civil justice system too. The payments offered to the families of slain loved ones do not come from their pockets. A study by UCLA School of Law professor Joanna Schwartz found that police officers paid only 0.02 percent of the $735 million awarded in damages to plaintiffs for various civil infractions over a six-year period.
More often than not, even the police departments do not pay these civil settlements and judgments. Professor Schwartz also discovered that at least 80 percent of city law enforcement agencies in the 100 jurisdictions she analyzed experienced no financial fallout from the imposition of civil settlements and judgments against them. Among the largest law enforcement agencies, which employed the majority of officers in the largest jurisdictions examined by Professor Schwartz, at least 60 percent were similarly insulated from the financial consequences of civil settlements and judgments.
Far from bearing the consequences of misconduct, financial or otherwise, police officers are allowed to move forward with their professional lives. Thus, the stage is set for their misconduct to continue. In the aftermath of these payments through the civil justice system, the officers go back to work in law enforcement. They are deployed back onto the streets to potentially shoot someone else’s loved one.
This begs the question of whether it is time to consider holding police officers and police departments directly responsible for paying civil settlements and judgments as a means of disincentivizing future misconduct. While acknowledging, however, that this possibility is worthy of further research, Professor Schwartz cautioned tempered expectations. She noted that many of the law enforcement agencies she studied that were on the hook for civil payments were implicated in some of the most publicized instances of police misconduct.
The family of Samuel DuBose agreed to a $4.85 million settlement with the University of Cincinnati in 2016. Each of his children will receive $218,000 and free undergraduate tuition at the university.
Another purpose of the civil justice system is to make victims whole. Not one of DuBose’s 13 children will ever be whole again even with the settlement. But holding the police officer who shot and killed their father, and other officers like him, personally accountable for his actions would have been a good place to start.
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson is a freelance writer and a writing fellow for Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Her work has appeared on AlterNet, U.S. News & World Report, Equal Voice News and Common Dreams.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.