The high cost of trigger-happy cops
▶ Cleveland proposes a tax hike to cover settlement costs ▶ “There will be a financial burden” when the feds step in
Last April, Chicago paid $5 million to the family of Laquan Mcdonald, after police officers shot and killed the black 17-year-old the year before. Then, in November, the city was ordered by a county judge to release video of Mcdonald’s death, which showed an officer shooting the teen 16 times. The Department of Justice quickly opened an investigation into misconduct in Chicago’s police department, and now the city is bracing for the costs of bad behavior by cops to go up, even as it struggles with other fiscal problems, including a $20 billion unfunded pension liability.
“Cities need to know that when the Justice Department comes in, there will be a financial burden,” says Kevin Kelley, the city council president in Cleveland, which in May agreed to accept a federal monitoring arrangement after a two-year Justice Department investigation of its police force. The city projects that satisfying the terms of the agreement, known as a consent decree, will cost $10.6 million this year and $7.1 million in each of the next four years. Cleveland has also agreed to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old whose fatal 2014 shooting by police was also caught on camera. On Feb. 1, Mayor Frank Jackson proposed a half-percentagepoint local income tax increase to pay the city’s obligations. “It’s a very clear choice,” Jackson told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
In Ferguson, Mo., civil unrest erupted after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year- old. The city council balked on Feb. 9 at signing a proposed consent decree. Officials said the deal offered by the federal government would have cost the St. Louis suburb as much as $10 million over a three-year period, about a quarter of its $14.5 million annual operating budget. Ferguson already projects a $2.8 million deficit for this year. The day after the council’s decision, the federal government sued, alleging the city unfairly targeted black residents for revenuegenerating traffic tickets and citations. City spokesman Jeff Small declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Even where the federal government hasn’t stepped in, municipalities are facing higher costs from civil judgments, in part because of the ubiquity of video documenting misconduct. In July 2014, a New York police officer was recorded using an apparent chokehold to subdue Eric Garner, a black man who was selling cigarettes illegally. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide, but the officer was cleared by a grand jury. The city reached a $5.9 million settlement last year with Garner’s family. In February the New York Daily News reported that a federal grand jury was considering civil-rights charges against the officer.
Incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston, S.C., and elsewhere have sparked similar civil-rights investigations. The volume of litigation involving police “has become very substantial,” says Marshall Davies, executive director of the Public Risk Management Association, a trade group for government administrators. “The risk has been there forever, as long as there have been police forces,” he says. “Suddenly, the risk has greatly increased.”
Los Angeles saw its payouts for cases involving excessive or unlawful use of force and civil-rights violations reach $23.6 million for the fiscal year ended June 30, up from $4.6 million in fiscal 2012, according to records provided by the city attorney’s office. City Councilman Mitchell Englander, the chairman of the public safety committee, says Los Angeles often chooses to settle cases rather than risk losing in court. “I haven’t seen a spike in misconduct at the LAPD,” Englander says. “What I have seen is a spike in awareness and concern both nationally and locally. We may get punished for the sins of our siblings, so to speak.”
Spending on police training in 23 of the 25 most populous U.S. cities has increased 17 percent since 2013, to $317.9 million last year, with at least $332.5 million budgeted in 2016, according to data provided in response to public-records requests. At a cost of $35 million, the New York Police Department is teaching all of its 22,000 patrol officers new techniques for street encounters with civilians, particularly in minority neighborhoods, an initiative that grew out of the Garner incident. Seattle’s annual budget for police training has increased about $5 million, to $13.6 million, after a 2012 consent decree forced changes, says Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, an SPD spokesman.
“There’s never been a concerted national effort to really spend a lot of money to address police misconduct,” says Stephen Rushin, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law who studies consent decrees. “We’re finally coming to the recognition that correcting police misconduct is an expensive proposition.” �Tim Jones, Mark Niquette, and James Nash The bottom line Officials in Ferguson, Mo., say that complying with a consent decree would have eaten about a quarter of the city’s $14.5 million budget.