Civil suits against police cost taxpayers millions but rarely result in reforms

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When grand juries failed to indict police officers for misconduct in several recent killings of unarmed men, including New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, there was widespread public outrage. Many who believed the officers were guilty hoped that, even if the officers escaped criminal responsibility, at least civil penalties would bring justice and accountability.

But new research shows that, while civil suits against police misconduct have a much better chance of winning a verdict against the officers in question, those suits are unlikely to change police department policies, and they rarely affect officers who committed the acts. FSRN’s Larry Buhl has more from Los Angeles.


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Joanna Schwartz is an assistant professor at UCLA law school. She analyzed thousands of civil rights settlements from 44 large and 37 small and medium-sized police departments from 2006 to 2011. She found that officers are almost always protected from paying money a court might award a victim as a result of the officer’s actions. In large cities, Schwartz found that that individual officers paid out only a tiny fraction of one percent of all settlement money in cases filed against police, and nothing at all in cases in smaller cities.

And Schwartz found something else very surprising: In the vast majority of cases she reviewed, the police departments didn’t even know how much their city was paying in damages, and didn’t even make the effort to learn from those lawsuits.

“When a lawsuit is filed the city attorney or county attorney generally handles the case and any money paid in those cases generally comes out of the city or county’s general budget and no information is kept by the law enforcement agency about what officer was named, what claims were alleged, what information came out during discovery, what was the resolution of the case or how much was paid,” Schwartz explains.

Schwartz says that information may reside somewhere in the city bureaucracy but is unlikely to reach supervisors who could analyze that data and learn what lessons it might offer.

Police accountability professionals say these results confirm what they’ve seen for years: a tort system that sometimes benefits the victims of police misconduct, always benefits the attorneys, and rarely leads to meaningful reform.

Cynthia Anderson-Barker is a civil rights and criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles. She tells FSRN she’s happy to win damage claims for her clients, but frustrated to see major law enforcement problems go unchanged. She says the opaque and defensive culture of police is partly to blame. And she puts part of the blame with lawyers.

“There is a problem with lawyers, when we litigate these cases, the lawyers on the other side, contract lawyers hired by the city, contract lawyers they’re paid by the hour,” Anderson-Barker points out. “And these lawyers have no incentive to settle these cases early on or to fix or reform the problem that is causing us to sue the city or the public entity.”

She says even when a claim seeks includes injunctive relief – a demand for policy changes as part of the lawsuit – and the police agree, often it’s still business as usual.

In 2000, Anderson-Barker and partners sued LAPD for opening fire on protesters and bystanders with hard rubber bullets, batons and beanbags outside a Democratic National Committee event. The city eventually paid out $4.1 million dollars in damages and lawyers fees. In addition to money, the court also issued an injunction, prohibiting the LAPD from shooting people with rubber bullets and beanbags and using batons for crowd control.

But seven years later, at a May Day celebration, LAPD ignored the injunction and used the same procedures.

“Police opened fire in the park using rubber bullets also with baton strikes, injuring scores of innocent folks. And that case was settled for $12.6 million. A huge hit the city took,” Anderson-Barker recalls.

Police reform advocates point out another reason why civil suits are ineffective in changing police policies: The U.S. Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court has made it extremely difficult for individuals to bring litigation to seek the kind of reforms that caused them harm. They can only seek compensation,” says Jonathan Smith.

Jonathan Smith is associate dean of experimental and clinical programs at the University of District of Columbia School of Law. He points to a 1983 case, the City of Los Angeles versus Lyons, brought after Los Angeles police officers – under the department’s then prevailing policy – placed the plaintiff, Adolph Lyons, in a chokehold following a traffic stop.

“It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and what the Supreme Court said in Lyons was he didn’t have standing to challenge the policy. He could get compensated, but he didn’t have standing to force them to change the policy because he couldn’t prove they would use the policy against him again. He didn’t have a dog in the fight of what happened going forward,” explains Smith. “And that decision in Lyons interrupted a long string of cases where an individual was able to leverage what happened to them to the greater good.”

Right now, the most effective tool for reform, one that’s used in only the most egregious cases of misconduct, is the consent decree.

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division can issue a consent decree to any law enforcement organization that shows “pattern and practice” of using excessive force or violating people’s civil rights, and force them to change a policy.

Consent decrees were initiated in response to the Rodney King beating in 1991, and have been issued most recently against police departments in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, and Baltimore in the wake of killings of unarmed black men.

But even a consent decree is no guarantee of long-term change.

“Federal consent decrees, the effectiveness depends on who are enforcing the consent decree, or not enforcing the consent decree, and it depends on the leadership of the police department,” says Joe Dominick.

Joe Dominick is the associate director of the Center on Media Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of the upcoming book, “Blue: The LAPD and Battle to Redeem American Policing.”

He says consent decrees are the best tool for reform right now but admits the Justice Department can’t use them everywhere, and because of stringent requirements against using them against individual officers, consent decrees are usually only effective against whole departments.

But, Dominick is optimistic that the worst law enforcement policies will be reformed, just not as a result of big civil suits. He says it will stem from public pressure .

“You have a new generation of journalists now who think that this is wrong, that what’s been going on for the past thirty years is wrong. A lot of those young people are for police reform, which wasn’t the case in the seventies and eighties and nineties when the majority of white people wanted the police to be tough,” Dominick points out.

Dominick and other police reform advocates say that, while more Americans are starting to understand what needs to change, whether and how fast those changes will happen remains to be seen.

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