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Police misconduct settlements can shift city budgets
If Your Time is short
In 2017, New Haven, Conn., had to pay $8.4 million to settle a police misconduct lawsuit.
It drew the funds from other city programs, and restored them the next year using proceeds from bond sales.
Few municipalities track the total cost of these lawsuits, which total millions nationally each year.
On the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, two federal lawmakers want to make Americans more aware of not only the human toll of police misconduct, but the financial cost too.
Virginia Democrats Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Don Beyer wrote in a CNBC op-ed that every year, taxpayers pay millions of dollars to settle lawsuits against the police. While a handful of large settlements draw headlines, such as the $27 million in Minneapolis for the death of Floyd, the majority don’t. And Kaine and Beyer said those payments have an impact on everyone.
"The money taxpayers spend on police misconduct has the potential to defund other municipal services," they wrote May 24. "In 2017, New Haven, Conn., had to issue bonds for a bridge after using funds for that bridge to pay for a police misconduct settlement."
Kaine and Beyer have companion bills that would require federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to report yearly on the amount they spend on judgements and settlements. The idea is that the disclosures would focus more attention on the cost of misconduct and motivate efforts to fight it.
We wondered about the New Haven example. Was money for a bridge diverted to settle a lawsuit against the police?
Yes, it was, although the shift in money was temporary.
In 2017, the New Haven board of alders voted to transfer $8.4 million from a number of city departments to meet an impending payment deadline for the legal settlement. Altogether, they drew from over 20 line items in the city budget, but three-fourths of the total — $6.35 million — came from money slated for the city’s Grand Avenue Bridge.
The next year, the board of alders backfilled the $8.4 million with additional borrowing through its bond program.
City officials said they were able to absorb the impact on city services.
The lawsuit itself stemmed from a 1990 double-murder case. One of the men convicted, Scott Lewis, served nearly two decades in prison before winning his release in 2014, with all charges dropped. Lewis had been found guilty based on testimony orchestrated by a New Haven police detective. The detective promised leniency to another criminal if he testified against Lewis and his alleged accomplice.
In 2013, a judge found that the detective had withheld essential evidence from Lewis’ defense attorneys. In 2015, the same judge also ruled that the New Haven Police chief had consciously decided not to discipline the detective "despite numerous indications of serious misconduct."
Lewis successfully sued New Haven, and when the city’s last appeal failed, it settled in 2017.
Kaine and Beyer said that cities and counties pay millions of dollars each year in penalties and settlements, and research backs that up.
A joint reporting project from FiveThirtyEight and the Marshall Project gathered records from over 30 cities, in most cases going back about a decade. They found that on average, New York City spent over $170 million a year to settle lawsuits against the police. Milwaukee paid an average of about $4 million a year. Indianapolis spent $1.3 million.
The investigative effort required to pull those details together speaks to a key problem: Few cities track or publish these numbers.
"The public and the police don’t have this information," said University of California, Los Angeles law professor Joanna Schwartz. "These are taxpayers’ dollars, and they should know how their money is spent. And right now they don't."
This, Schwartz said, defeats a key purpose of misconduct lawsuits — deterring future misconduct.
"The police chief could be looking at the cost of chokeholds, and decide that chokeholds are too expensive to keep using," Schwartz said. "But if the chief doesn’t have this info, it can’t shape behavior."
Seeing the totals in one place, backers argue, might also increase public pressure for change.
Taxpayers notice large settlements, such as Louisville’s $12 million to the family of Breonna Taylor or Cleveland’s $6 million to the family of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, but in many jurisdictions, the amounts are much lower. It’s only when someone tallies them up that the full burden becomes clear.
Schwartz cautions, however, that even looking at the full totals might not be enough to spur policy changes. They tend to amount to much less than 1% of a city or county’s annual budget.
And her research in 2016 found that the costs of penalties or settlements rarely land on the police departments that drew the legal action. In the handful of places where the funds came out of a department’s budget, there was some greater awareness, but Schwartz found even that was muted. City and county budget processes ended up insulating law enforcement officials from the consequences of their misconduct.
Kaine said police settlements can defund city services, as when "New Haven, Conn, had to issue bonds for a bridge after using funds for that bridge to pay for a police misconduct settlement."
In 2017, the city drew a total of $8.4 million from a number of city programs, including $6.35 from a bridge project, to settle a lawsuit against the police. It backfilled the $8.4 million the next year by selling new bonds.
We rate this claim True.
CNBC, Police misconduct can be deadly. It also costs taxpayers millions every year, May 24, 2021
New Haven Independent, City Finds $9.5M To Pay Dirty-Cop Bill, Sept. 26, 2017
U.S. Congress, Cost of Police Misconduct Act, March 2, 2021
New Hampshire Register, New Haven to settle wrongful imprisonment case for $9.5 million, Aug. 4, 2017
City of New Haven, Adopted budget FY 2017-2018, June 5, 2017
City of New Haven, Adopted budget FY 2018-2019, June 4, 2018
UCLA Law Review, How Governments Pay: Lawsuits, Budgets, and Police Reform, June 4, 2016
Harvard law review, How Private Insurers Regulate Public Police, April 10, 2017
FiveThirtyEight, Cities Spend Millions On Police Misconduct Every Year. Here’s Why It’s So Difficult to Hold Departments Accountable., Feb. 22, 2021
AP, A look at big settlements in US police killings, March 12, 2021
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Police Funding Database, accessed May 25, 2021
Email exchange, Katie Stuntz, spokesperson, Sen. Tim Kaine, May 25, 2021
Interview, Joanna Schwartz, professor of law, UCLA School of Law, May 26, 2021
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