This week has been marked by a pair of multi-million dollar settlements paid to the families of Black men killed by police in major cities. They are among the largest settlements in recent years, highlighting the soaring costs of police brutality cases. Yet, while taxpayers shell out money for police misconduct, relatively few police officers are ever indicted or convicted for their wrongdoing.
On September 8, a federal jury awarded $5.5 million to the family of Kenneth Smith, who was shot in the head and killed by Cleveland policeman Roger Jones in March 2012. This comes over a year after the Cuyahoga County prosecutor cleared the officer of wrongdoing, concluding Smith had a gun and Jones was protecting others. Since that time, the U.S. Department of Justice has released a report critical of the use of excessive force by Cleveland police, and entered into an agreement with the city to reform the police department.
Meanwhile, the same day, the parents of Freddie Gray reached a $6.4 million settlement with the city of Baltimore. In April 2015, Gray died of a spinal injury received while in police custody, leading to six police indictments, and protests and unrest throughout the city. In July, the city of New York reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after a police officer placed him in a chokehold—all over selling loose cigarettes.
So far this year, according to a database maintained by The Guardian, 804 people have been killed by police across the country. Of these, 169 were unarmed, and 62 were Black and unarmed. Blacks are twice as likely to die under these circumstances. The U.S. government does not maintain comprehensive data on people killed by law enforcement. Meanwhile, the 10 cities with the largest police departments in the nation paid out $248.7 million in police misconduct settlements last year, which include alleged shooting, beating and wrongful imprisonment, according to data collected by the Wall Street Journal. This represents a 48 percent increase from $168.3 million in 2010.
Moreover, these cities paid out an astounding $1.02 billion over those five years, more than $1.4 billion when factoring in claims related to property damage, car collisions and other police incidents.
However, as these police brutality and misconduct cases cost taxpayers millions of dollars to settle, police still rarely face any criminal responsibility for their wrongdoing. Indictments and convictions for police remain low, as the system continues to protect officers for their use of force. This year, at least 15 police officers were indicted for killing, reflecting an August report from The Atlantic which tallied at least 14 cases. In addition, on September 4, a grand jury indicted Portsmouth, Virginia police officer Stephen Rankin on charges of first-degree murder and using a gun in a felony for fatally shooting William Chapman 18, in a Walmart parking lot in April.
Additionally, in June of this year, LAPD Officer Mary O’Callaghan was convicted of assault in connection with the 2012 arrest Alesia Thomas, a Black woman who became unconscious and died of her injuries. The assault was captured on a police cruiser camera, in which O’Callaghan allegedly kicked Thomas in the groin, jabbed at her throat, and threatened to break her arms and kick her in the genitals. In August, a mistrial was declared in North Carolina in the case of white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, who was on trial for the 2013 killing of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed former college football player who had just survived a car crash. Kerrick faced 11 years in prison, and the state of North Carolina decided not to retry him for the voluntary manslaughter charge.
Meanwhile, a cursory examination has found that so far this year, cities across the country have paid at least $72 million to settle allegations in high-profile police misconduct cases.