When African Americans are faced with police misconduct, they are often told to seek justice in the courts, but that doesn’t always work. Courts seem to be reluctant to hand down heavy sentences on police officers. Bay Area Rapid Transport Police Officer Johannes Mehserle, who shot Oscar Grant in the back in 2009, did less than two years in jail. St. Louis County District Attorney Bob McCulloch, who comes from a family of police officers, declined to charge Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown last year.
Many Black families are seeking compensation in civil suits, and cities seem to be more than happy to pay hefty sums to settle these cases. However, bad policing is costing taxpayers a lot of money as cities and municipalities spend millions to defend and settle police abuse cases. According to the Baltimore Sun, the city has paid $5.7 million to settle police abuse cases since 2011. The New York Police Department, which has a long-standing history of abuse against African-Americans, has cost the city of New York millions. The New York Post reported the city paid more than $185 million to settle cases against the NYPD in 2011 alone. In Arizona, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is known, by many, for overseeing an abusive police department. However, Maricopa County is so quick to settle police abuse cases that personal injury lawyers see Arpaio’s department as an ATM. According to the Arizona Republic, lawsuits against Maricopa County have cost taxpayers $44 million.
Dr. Cassi Fields, founder of Fields Consulting Group, has trained and tested police officers at metropolitan areas and municipalities across the country. She said cities mull over several issues before deciding to settle police abuse cases. They weigh the odds of winning and the cost of defending the case. A lot of times it comes down to money.
“They settle if it is the easiest and least costly way,” Fields said.
According to Fields, cities and municipalities prepare to deal with lawsuits. They face a barrage of legal challenges, many are not just for police abuse. Most cities have a team of lawyers on hand to deal with this, Fields said. And in some cases, cities set aside money to deal with potential lawsuits.
But, Fields thinks the system is not working. Cities keep shelling out money to defend and settle police abuse cases. However, she thinks the money would be better spent in improving police testing and training.
Fields pointed out most officers undergo rigorous training in police academies. The training lasts from 16-20 weeks and includes psychological, physical and weapons training. However, once they graduate, there is little follow-up training.
“I believe we are seeing a selection and training problem,” Fields said. “Police officers don’t train constantly.”
Fields says taxpayers need to take a closer look at how cities spend their dollars.
“We, as citizens who are taxpayers, have a minimal understanding of how our tax dollars are spent,” Fields said.
She recommends taxpayers go over city budgets with a fine-tooth comb and look at how much municipalities spend on items such as police testing and training and legal costs.
Cheryl Wattley, a law professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas, says filing a civil case against a police department or municipality can be a lengthy process. She filed several excessive force cases against the Dallas Police Department and other area police agencies when she was working in private practice.
She estimated it took about two to four years for a case to be settled. There are several issues to be considered such as if there are criminal charges to be filed. Wattley also said plaintiffs have to show that the departments have a pattern of abuse.
According to Wattley, financial settlements are either covered by the municipalities or their insurance companies. Some cities opt to insure themselves and are less likely to settle, since the terms are subject to open records, Wattley said.
However, a civil suit can do more than just impose a financial penalty on a city. If a lawsuit reveals a clear pattern of abusive behavior, it can force police agencies to address those problems and make structural changes.
“Civil lawsuits can be much more effective than getting money awarded,” Wattley said.
Kevin Sali, a Portland, Oregon-based attorney who has filed civil cases against law enforcement agencies, said there are legal reasons why cities and police agencies are eager to settle. If litigation against a city or police agency is successful and wins a judgment, it becomes a binding ruling. That makes it easier for other plaintiffs to sue.
Civil suits can win financial settlements. But maybe it time for taxpayers to start insisting their elected officials invest in better trained police officers who avoid costly lawsuits.