Questions about the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray have shone a spotlight on police practices in Ferguson and Baltimore. But there is more to look than those two cases. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal reports that the settlement costs of police misconduct cases in big U.S. cities has risen sharply in recent years. The article points out that the costs have risen 48% since 2010. The total payout over a five-year period was over $1 billion.
The payouts do not involve just new cases; some of the cases in which resolutions have been sought go back several decades. The Journal's article says that the costliest claims involved allegations of civil-rights violations and other misconduct, followed by payouts on car collisions involving the police. Professor Kami Chavis Simmons of the Wake Forest University School of Law discusses the subject of the Journal article in this report.
Prof. Simmons says that it’s not entirely clear whether there is more police misconduct these days or whether there is merely more scrutiny of police departments. There is no national database of this sort of information, so it is difficult to make a sound analysis of what has happened and how much, if at all, things have changed. However, Prof. Simmons says, there has unquestionably been more scrutiny in recent years. Dashboard and body cameras have brought police conduct into the national spotlight.*
Prof. Simmons notes that police departments could make structural changes that would reduce the number of lawsuits being filed. The Department of Justice has suggested that urban police department develop “early warning tracking systems” to alert them to potential problems and problem officers. A department can’t deal with problems unless it has a way of identifying them.
Another improvement would be for a department to have clear and consistent policies about things like use of force, and such policies need to be kept up-to-date. Departments also need to provide adequate training for their officers. The type of training and the frequency with which it is provided can have an effect on police officer performance. Good policies can help to improve relationships with communities, and better public relations may lead to fewer lawsuits.
Prof. Simmons also points out that, as a practical matter, all the money spent to resolve police misconduct lawsuits will come from taxpayers. This is one reason why it is important for police departments to make efforts to improve and taxpayers should pay attention to what police departments are doing.
* And video cameras may be making a difference in the speed of settlements. A Chicago case involving Laquan McDonald was settled for $5 million rather quickly. Police dashboard camera video was said to be an important factor in the settlement.
Kami Chavis Simmons is a Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University School of Law. In 2015, she was appointed as a Senior Academic Fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. She has substantial practice experience and writes and teaches in areas related to criminal law, criminal procedure and criminal justice reform. In 2003, she became an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. Professor Simmons frequently makes presentations on law-enforcement issues and is a leader in the field of police accountability. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.