It seems like every day new information comes out about another incident of excessive force used by police. The latest is the widely-reported story of a police officer in Texas, who after tackling a 14-year-old girl in a bikini to the ground, aimed his gun at a group of unarmed teenagers during a pool party. These events have become so ubiquitous in the headlines, it is difficult to keep them straight. Incidents seem to be popping up in small communities and large cities, on the east coast and the west coast, involving victims with a range of ages.
There are no shortages of victims who have been injured, disabled or killed by police. This year, fatal police shootings have already reached 400 nationwide, “more than twice the rate of fatal police shootings tallied by the federal government over the past decade, a count that officials concede is incomplete.” Scores of others have been seriously hurt. And many cases have no justification, creating liability exposure for cities and police departments. Take the case of 21-year-old Ohio State University student, Joseph Hines who was severely beaten by police after being arrested in connection with a littering charge. Last week, a U.S. District Judge ruled that his lawsuit against the Columbus police department could continue. The student was handcuffed, thrown on the ground, pepper-sprayed, punched repeatedly in the head, and hog-tied by an officer. Hines was knocked unconscious and was forced to spend three days recovering in the hospital.
For many victims, like Mr. Hines, because filing of criminal charges against a police officer is so rare, a day in civil court is the only justice they will ever receive. This right to seek redress is important both for the victims, who are often unable to pay for the unforeseen medical expenses (often totaling tens of thousands of dollars) but also for police who can use the information to identify potentially wide-spread abuses and better their departments.
As was first pointed out in 2011 op ed by Joanna Schwartz in the New York Times, most cities fail to make proper use of this information in order to reduce incidents of brutality. For example, in New York City, she explains-
“The [police] department does not track which officers were named, what claims were alleged or what payouts were made in the thousands of suits brought every year. What’s more, officers’ personnel files contain no record of the allegations and results of lawsuits filed against them. Neither the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau nor the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigates allegations made in lawsuits, and police officials review only the litigation files of the few dozen cases each year that result in payments of $250,000 or more.”
Ms. Schwartz continues-
“Because the department ignores lawsuits, it cannot analyze or learn from them; instead, the city effectively writes off these suits as the extraordinarily high cost of doing police business.”
And the costs are clear. A report by the Washington Post revealed that local governments are paying millions of dollars in settlements for police misconduct but ignoring the root causes. Chicago taxpayers paid $84 million in just one year, while New Yorkers paid $348 million between 2006 and 2011 for cases alleging civil rights violations by the police (a price critics believe could have built seven new New York City schools). Last year, the annual cost to settle police misconduct claims in New York City surpassed all other claims, including medical malpractice, by nearly $90 million.
While some attack the victims for bring these lawsuits, Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, explained in the Washington Post article-
“The reasonable response to high settlement amounts is to stop violating people’s constitutional rights — to take greater care that police officers aren’t trained to just leave the legal issues up to the lawyers but rather are trained to take responsibility for their actions and not violate the civil rights and constitutional rights of the people that they serve. High settlement figures are warning signs that something is not right within the department, it’s not a reason to complain about the constitution.”