The High Cost of Excessive Force

Excessive Force Budget

It really doesn’t do to bemoan the reactions to the use of excessive force by police officers, and then decry the “waste and abuse” of taxpayer dollars. When all the chaff is shaken out, what we have is a situation in which a small number of officers are costing a large number of local governments, and the taxpayers who support them, a significant amount of money.

Although the lack of data collected in a coordinated fashion makes the explication of this problem difficult, we do know that there about 765,000 officers, and between 2005 and 2011 there were 5,545 of them arrested on a variety of charges. [CNN]  If we drill down to “excessive use of force” incidents the Department of Justice does have some ballpark-statistics:

The Justice Department releases statistics on this and related issues, though these datasets are only periodically updated: It found that in 2008, among people who had contact with police, “an estimated 1.4% had force used or threatened against them during their most recent contact, which was not statistically different from the percentages in 2002 (1.5%) and 2005 (1.6%).” In terms of the volume of citizen complaints, the Justice Department also found that there were 26,556 complaints lodged in 2002; this translates to “33 complaints per agency and 6.6 complaints per 100 full-time sworn officers.” However, “overall rates were higher among large municipal police departments, with 45 complaints per agency, and 9.5 complaints per 100 full-time sworn officers.” In 2011, about 62.9 million people had contact with the police. [JRorg]

All situations considered, we are probably safe asserting that a relatively small number of officers are involved in complaints related to the excessive use of force.   However, those complaints can easily become budget busters for local governments.

Cities Big and Small

The cost of settling cases involving the excessive use of force by officers can be alarmingly high – such as the approximately $1 billion ($964 million) paid out in settlements over the last ten years by the City of New York. [CBS] And again we find that a few officers are capable of busting the bank for repeated incidents:

“Some officers are sued multiple times: In the past three years, one Brooklyn precinct sergeant has been sued at least seven times on excessive force and brutality claims, costing the city at least $188,250. A narcotics detective was the target of at least six suits that spurred $103,000 in payouts. The city has paid $171,500 to settle four suits against one plainclothes detective; another case against him is pending.” [CBS]

Los Angeles County spent $43,000,000 on cases involving police misconduct in 2013, including legal fees and settlements.  [LATimes]  

“The county’s overall spending on lawsuits was down from $115 million in 2012 to $89 million in the 2013 fiscal year, according to a report by the county’s attorneys to the Board of Supervisors. The total includes settlements, judgments and legal fees for the county’s own lawyers and outside law firms. But costs for the Sheriff’s Department rose, driven primarily by settlements and trial judgments in excessive force cases. According to figures provided by county Supervisor Gloria Molina’s office Thursday, separate from the litigation report, excessive force cases cost the county $20 million last year, up $7 million from the year before. The Sheriff’s Department accounted for $37 million in litigation costs in 2012, county litigation cost manager Steve Estabrook said, making up about one-third of countywide lawsuit expenditures for that year.”

Imagine for a moment what Los Angeles, New York City, or Brooklyn might have done with the money allocated for paying settlements – much less the legal expenses incurred in the process of getting to a settlement.   However, it’s not just major metropolitan areas that are looking at the expense of cases involving police misconduct or excessive use of force, although the statistics from major areas are instructive.

Oakland, CA a city of 406,253 persons as of 2013, has paid out approximately $74,000,000 in settlements since 1990. [OPB] Denver, Colorado, population 649,495, paid out $13,000,000 over the last ten years to settle abuse claims. [DenPost] About 600 complaints of police misconduct cost the city of Philadelphia nearly $40,000,000 since 2009, and 29 shooting incidents have cost the city $13,139,500 of that total. [MR] On March 26, 2014 the Dallas, TX city council voted to settle an excessive force case for $1.1 million, leading one city council member to remind his colleagues that the high price should be associated with a review of practices so that these expenses can be avoided. [DMN]

The bills are piling up in Pittsburgh, PA. “According to police annual reports from 2011 and 2012, the city paid out a total of $381,764 in settlements, judgments and attorneys fees for lawsuits related to excessive force, civil rights violations, false arrest, racial profiling or harassment.” [PPG] A botched SWAT raid cost the city $107,500 in 2014. [Trib]

A single officer in Chicago, IL racked up 45 excessive force complaints.  One settlement cost $99,000 and a subsequent one another $71,000. [CST]

Baltimore, MD was faced with a bill for $113,000 to settle two cases of excessive force and injuries in 2013. [BSun]  Tallahassee, FL agreed to a $745,000 settlement for police excessive force in September 2014. [WCTV]  St. Paul, MN settled an excessive force case in 2013 for $50,000. [ST] The total paid out in settlements by St. Paul came to $1 million in the period between 2007 and 2013. [TC.com]

Seattle, WA paid $75,000 to settle a 2008 case of police misconduct in 2013.  [KOMO] In December 2011, Allentown, PA agreed to a $35,000 settlement for excessive use of force, which was added to another settlement that year of $915,000 for the death of a four year old boy in an ‘out of control’ police car incident in 2007. [Mcall]

Wichita, KS paid $37,500 in a 2013 settlement. [TWE]   Rockford City, IL paid $400,000 to settle one case of police abuse in 2013.  [RN]  No settlement has yet been reached in a Martinsburg, WV case  involving a fatal shooting. [CG]  Springfield, MO is facing a $700,000 in the instance of an unarmed man shot by police. [SNL]

A proposed settlement involving excessive force may cost the city of Bozeman, MT $150,000. [BDC] The 39,860 residents have a city budget for general fund operations of $26,897,01. [Bozeman pdf] Santa Barbara, CA settled a 2011 excessive use of force case in 2014 for a total of $170,000.  Santa Barbara’s total combined operating budget for FY14-15 is $$277.2 million, with $155,280,758 allocated for general fund operating expenses.  [SBB]

Smaller communities, like Hamden, CT aren’t immune. On November 16, 2014 Hamden settled a case against three of its police officers for $70,500. [Register] Hamden has a population of 56,913 and a total budget of $125,124,606 for all town personnel and services. [Hamden] In other words, Hamden just allocated 5.6% of its city budget (not including the school district) in payments for police misconduct.

Vermillion, OH paid out $720,000 to settle an abuse of force case in 2012. [LCO]   One officer in Mount Vernon, NY was responsible for a total of $930,000 in legal fees and settlements between 2009 and 2013, [lohud] and in late 2014 he was involved in yet another incident. [lohud]  This officer is almost the ‘poster child’ for the high cost of excessive force in relatively small urban areas – the total proposed budget for the 68,224 person community was $96,090,198. [MVDV]

These examples are probably more than sufficient to establish two conclusions. First, that there are a small number of officers causing a great deal of pain, and secondly, that while the highest settlement costs are associated with large metropolitan areas the expenses are also a drain on the resources of smaller cities and towns.

There will assuredly be more litigation in New York Cleveland, Ferguson, St. Louis, and in the wake of the Beavercreek, Ohio Wal-Mart shooting.

No Silver Bullets

In each of the selected cases above there was excessive force which resulted in injury or death, but there is no single Silver Bullet solution for the variety of incidents – some with and without video evidence.  Lapel or body cameras have been shown to be effective in pilot projects such as in Rialto, CA.  However, in the wake of the Eric Garner case they are obviously not the complete answer.  The response needs to be more systemic if local governments are to avoid both the incidents of excessive force and the litigation and settlement costs attached to those incidents.  Rethinking our ‘system’ may be in order – from the recruitment process to the attachment of the camera on the officers’ uniform.  We might ask our local government officials some pertinent questions:

Do the recruitment policies and practices of the police department reflect a desire to diversify the departments along racial, ethnic, and other lines?  Does the department have a long range plan for hiring and training personnel such that the department reflects the community? Does the department attend to records of previous employment, to the psychological fitness of potential recruits, and to the social maturity of those recruits?

Does the department have an internal review policy which incorporates input from the community? Is there a civilian review board?  If there is such a board, how is its efficacy measured?  Does the department keep adequate records of police involved incidents and shootings? Are these reported on a regular basis?  How are these incidents investigated?  To whom are the results of the investigations reported?

Does the department have a training program which includes sufficient attention to community policing practices and policies?  What, for example, is the ratio of time spent on self-defense and weapons training to the time spent on community relations and de-escalation techniques?  Is the ratio considered effective – and how is ‘effectiveness’ to the calculated?

Does the department evaluation scheme provide an adequate alert to flag those officers and other personnel who are replicating unacceptable behavior, and thus prevent the instances of multiple complaints stemming from contacts made by a few officers?  How does the department balance the due process rights of the officers with the necessity of removing evidently unfit personnel?

Does the department have an in-service training program which enhances the likelihood that police/civilian contact will have positive results?  How much time and effort is put into implementing community policing policies and practices? How often and in what circumstances do officers interact with community members? Is the in-service training program effective in terms of replacing negative behaviors and attitudes with a positive work atmosphere?

Given the fragmented nature of police operations in this country, these questions, of necessity, must be answered at the local level; and, the conversation and dialog can’t happen too soon.

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