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

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - Edited by Al­li­son Hoff­man

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.

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