Neither the driver, 43-year-old Timothy Russell, nor his passenger, 30-year-old Malissa Williams, ever got a chance to explain why they fled. Moments after they stopped, 13 officers, including Brelo, unleashed a hail of 137 bullets into their car. Brelo fired 49 of those rounds, reloading his weapon twice and finishing the assault from atop the hood of the rusty Malibu. When the shooting subsided, Russell and Williams were both dead, each suffering more than 20 bullet wounds.
Last week, a judge found Brelo not guilty on all charges stemming from the incident, ruling that the shooting was justified and that it was impossible to determine if the fatal shots were fired by him or one of the other 12 officers. Brelo was the only officer facing criminal charges in the shooting and remains on the force. Though the Cleveland Police Department’s astonishing trigger-happiness led to a Justice Department review that culminated this week in an expansive set of reforms (which the head of a Cleveland police union has already denounced), the city’s taxpayers have been on the hook for the tragic mistake for months.
In November 2014, a county judge approved a $3 million out-of-court settlement resulting from a wrongful death lawsuit, to be paid by the city of Cleveland to the victims’ families and their lawyers. That money, like the rest of the police department’s budget, comes from taxpayers.
Some say this system of liability allows officers to do a difficult job without constant fear of being sued, while also ensuring that victims of potential mistakes can seek damages. In many cases, however, it’s hard not to feel that we are subsidizing negligent police behavior and misconduct, at a time when city budgets are tight and calls for improved accountability in law enforcement are louder than ever.
As the Washington Post’s Radley Balko noted in a 2014 blog post, these lawsuits are “supposed to inspire better oversight, better government and better policing.” When the Baltimore Sun reports that the $5.7 million in taxpayer funds paid out to settle police misconduct cases between 2011 and 2014 could “cover the price of a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds,” for example, citizens are supposed to respond by demanding political change that will help address the root causes of these lawsuits and ensure their money goes to building playgrounds instead.
It hasn’t always played out like this at the voting booth, but maybe it’s time we begin applying political pressure on the issue of policing.
The sheer size of this financial burden is a big problem, as the regular six- and seven-figure police misconduct settlements around the nation demonstrate. And while the reports below point to some substantial figures, the total amount we’re actually paying remains something of an unknown, as the terms of settlements are sometimes sealed to the public and police data collection concerning civil suits and their outcomes has long been criticized as inadequate. There’s also the broader question of what messages the civil justice system’s indemnification of police sends to officers and the taxpayers who are liable for the costs that officers incur.
If the public ends up paying for an officer’s misconduct or alleged misconduct, it seems fair that they’d want the officer and the police department he or she works for to make efforts to keep taxpayers from having to shell out for future settlements or judgments. Instead, we see police departments routinely failing to discipline problematic officers, including those named in lawsuits, even when they may already have a record of misconduct or complaints.
We also see departmental inaction as officers across police forces repeatedly face the same accusations of misconduct, either due to violations of policy or because the policies themselves are inappropriate. We see police departments resist reform and transparency, which would cut back on allegations of misconduct, including in false claims officers inevitably face. And we see a system of adjudication that now regularly seeks to settle lawsuits, supposedly saving taxpayer dollars in part by keeping the facts of a misconduct case from going before a jury, which may decide a plaintiff deserves an award larger than the settlement. (Police don’t pay regardless, and this approach coincidentally saves them from further public scrutiny.)
Some police departments have made proactive reforms in the face of these taxpayer-subsidized infractions. Others were forced to change after things got so bad that the Justice Department had to intervene. But many police forces, including those in some of the cities below, have seemingly taken advantage of a system that empowers officers to act with impunity and provides little pressure to deter future misconduct.
There is no easy solution for this deeply entrenched problem. Speaking out with your voice and your vote is a start. Others have suggested a reform that would shift some financial liability in civil lawsuits back onto police — who are, after all, responsible for the actions in question.
But if we continue to do nothing, we are giving tacit approval to a relationship in which taxpayers are victimized twice — both as direct casualties of police misconduct and unwilling enablers who must eventually pay for that misconduct.
Here’s what police misconduct cases are costing taxpayers in big cities across the nation:
$36 million between 2005 and 2015.
A report by the Boston Globe published in May found that the city had paid $36 million to resolve more than 2,000 legal claims and lawsuits against the Boston Police Department over the past decade. The payouts went mainly to resolve cases concerning alleged wrongful convictions or police misconduct, and $31 million of this total stemmed from 22 cases, including nine awards of more than $1 million. One notorious case, in which a black officer allegedly beat a white citizen so badly that he was left with permanent brain damage, led to a $1.4 million settlement. Criminal charges were never filed against the officer, and though the Boston Police Department fired him for unreasonable force and for lying about the incident, an independent arbitrator later ruled that the city had to rehire him with back pay, full benefits and compensation. That’s a testament to the power of police unions and the arbitration process to shield officers from being held accountable for their actions.
That’s enough money for Boston to cover the cost of large-scale renovations to a local high school athletic complex two times over.
Construction began last year on new facilities for the West Roxbury Education Complex. The $18 million project will give the school a new football field, baseball field, softball field and a multi-use field, all with new artificial turf surfaces, as well as a new running track and other features to accommodate spectators.
$521 million between 2004 and 2014.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2014 that brutality-related lawsuits cost Chicago taxpayers more than half a billion dollars in the preceding decade. About 15 percent of these payments went to victims of police torture under the rule of notorious former Police Commander Jon Burge, according to the Sun-Times. Chicago voted earlier this year to set aside additional funds for reparations to the more than 100 black men who faced beatings, suffocation, electrocution and other abuse in order to force confessions between the 1970s and early 1990s. In 1994, a powerful police union characterized a decision to uphold Burge’s termination as a “miscarriage of justice.” Burge ultimately spent 3 and 1/2 years behind bars on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
That’s enough money for Chicago to cover nearly the entire cost of a new, state-of-the-art research hospital being built downtown.
The Ability Institute of RIC is a $550 million project under construction on the lakefront, just two blocks from the Research Institute of Chicago’s existing facility. The Chicago Tribune reports that each floor “will be dedicated to a different area of rehabilitation: nerve, muscle and bone; spinal chord; pediatrics; and cancer of all kinds.”
$8.2 million between 2004 and 2014.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in December that the city’s taxpayers had paid $8.2 million over 10 years to resolve lawsuits against the police alleging brutality, misconduct or wrongful arrests. The city paid judgments in over 60 cases in this decade, both by settlement and jury decision. These included a $3 million settlement to the families of Williams and Russell, killed by a barrage of police gunfire in 2012. Most of the 100 officers involved in that incident avoided any significant disciplinary action, and the lone sergeant fired in its aftermath was ultimately rehired following a decision by an arbitrator.
That’s enough money for Cleveland to pay almost its entire share of the cost to build a new YMCA facility downtown.
The city broke ground on the $12.5 million project earlier this year after raising around $4.5 million from private donors, leaving Cleveland with $8.9 million in construction costs. YMCA executives say the new building will allow them to more than double their previous membership.
$6.6 million between 2011 and 2014.
According to the Baltimore Sun’s report, Dallas residents shelled out $6.6 million for a number of substantial settlements and jury judgments between 2011 and the summer of 2014. A Dallas Morning News report from earlier in 2014 pointed specifically to two seven-figure settlements. In one, the city approved a $1.1 million settlement for a black man who was beaten during an arrest and jailed for months on a charge that was dropped when video of the incident contradicted the officer’s account. The officer was ultimately cleared in an internal investigation, and eventually resigned from the police force for unrelated health reasons.
That’s enough money for Dallas to have more than doubled its police community outreach budget for each year between 2011 and 2014.
The Dallas Police Department’s community outreach budget, which funds a variety of projects designed to strengthen bonds between officers and citizens, allocated $1.7 million to these efforts in fiscal year 2013 and gave a slight bump to funding in fiscal year 2014. In previous years between 2012 and 2010, that number was closer to $1.3 million.
~$12 million since 2011.
The Colorado Independent reported earlier this month on the heavy price of about $12 million that Denver taxpayers have paid over the past five years due to allegations of excessive force by the city’s police and sheriff’s departments. This total included a $3.25 million settlement to a jail inmate who accused a sheriff’s deputy of encouraging other prisoners to beat and torture him, as well as a $860,000 settlement awarded to a disabled veteran who was beaten so badly by police that he had to be resuscitated. No criminal charges were filed in either of those cases, and no officers were fired. One officer involved in the second case faced temporary re-assignment to desk duty earlier this year, while the department reviewed his record of more than 40 citizen complaints.
An earlier Denver Post analysis in 2014 noted a number of high-profile settlements and judgments over the previous decade stemming from allegations of excessive force and civil rights violations against both departments. These included a $1.3 million settlement in 2004 over a Denver police officer’s fatal shooting of a developmentally disabled 15-year-old boy. No criminal charges were filed in that case, and though the officer was suspended, the suspension was eventually overturned and the officer was given back pay.
That’s enough money for Denver to completely cover and even expand upon a recently announced $10 million affordable housing loan program.
With the housing market getting increasingly expensive in Denver, the program — set to be funded from a variety of city and state sources — will provide credits to developers looking to address a growing shortage of affordable and low-income housing in the city.
~$101 million between 2002 and 2011.
According a HuffPost analysis of LAPD payment data released by the Los Angeles Times in 2011, taxpayers paid more than $100 million to settle lawsuits against officers accused of civil rights violations, wrongful deaths and other intradepartmental misconduct. These payouts, made by the city between 2002 and October 2011, didn’t include huge settlements awarded to citizens in recent years, including a $5 million settlement resulting from the case of an unarmed National Guard veteran killed by LAPD officers on live TV in 2013 and a $1.35 million sum given to the mother of a man who died in LAPD custody in 2013 following a traffic stop. Investigators declined to file charges in the first case, though officers were relieved of duty without pay earlier this year, pending an announcement of further disciplinary action. Charges haven’t been announced in the second case.
A recent National Journal analysis suggests that civil rights lawsuits against police continued to take a heavy toll on taxpayers between 2011 and September 2014.
That’s enough money for Los Angeles to match the entire amount it pays each year to cope with homelessness.
A Los Angeles Times report found that the city pays around $100 million annually for issues relating to homelessness, and that as much as $87 million of that goes to enforcement-related efforts, including arrests, patrols and mental health interventions. With more money, the city could afford a softer — and advocates say more effective — approach. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an agency designed to respond to community complaints regarding the homeless, has just 19 employees for the entire county and operates on $330,000 in general fund money, according to the LA Times. Members of the Los Angeles City Council have also suggested it could direct more money to mental health and social service funding, as well as housing first projects that have proven effective at reducing homelessness in cities across the United States.
$9.3 million between 2011 and 2014.
Minnesota Public Radio reported earlier this month that the city’s taxpayers have been on the hook for $9.3 million to resolve police conduct lawsuits over the past few years. More than half of that total came from two cases, including a $3 million settlement in a wrongful death suit filed by the family of a mentally ill black man who died in 2010 after being restrained by police. No criminal charges were filed against the two officers involved that case, and neither was disciplined.
That’s enough money for Minneapolis to fund its police body camera program more than eight times over.
A budget passed by the city council in December allocated $1.1 million over the next two years to help roll out a department-wide body camera program. This money will be used to cover the cost of new equipment and data storage fees.
New York City
$348 million between 2006 and 2011.
A UCLA study published last year in the NYU Law Review found that New York City taxpayers were left to pay settlements and judgments totaling $348 million in 6,113 cases alleging civil rights violations by police over a five-year period. This sum included a more than $7 million settlement awarded to family and friends of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man killed by officers on his wedding day in 2006. Officers were ultimately acquitted on all charges stemming from the incident, though the NYPD eventually fired one officer and forced three others to resign.
Dataobtained by MuckRock last October suggested that settlements and judgments have not slowed over the past five years.
That’s enough money for New York City to pay for the construction of more than seven brand new schools.
PS 281, also called the River School, opened its doors to students in 2013. Its construction costs were $47 million, according to the developer’s website. The six-story, 103,000-square-foot primary and intermediate school includes an “at-grade playground, a gymatorium, a second gymnasium, rooftop playfield, laboratory spaces, cafeteria and 26 classrooms.”
$74 million between 1990 and 2014.
An analysis by Oakland Police Beat in April 2014 found that the city’s taxpayers had paid out $74 million to resolve at least 417 lawsuits accusing police officers of brutality, misconduct and other civil rights violations since 1990. Among them was a record $10.5 million settlement in 2004 for victims who claimed four officers kidnapped, beat and planted drugs on them during the summer of 2000. The officers most closely involved were fired and faced criminal charges, though they were ultimately acquitted. The alleged ringleader fled the country after the charges were announced.
Oakland Police Beat’s tally doesn’t include any instances of lawsuits that may have been resolved through jury trials, and it also excludes lawsuits that may have stemmed from intradepartmental issues or negligence. It leaves out more recent settlements as well, such as the $230,000 awarded to a black teen in April, two years after police shot him in the face because they believed he was a robbery suspect. Criminal charges were not filed in that case, and no disciplinary action was announced.
That’s enough money for Oakland to have invested extra funds each year in a pioneering behavioral health program in the city’s schools.
The Oakland Unified School District’s Behavioral Health Unit oversees a variety of initiatives designed to support underserved students. These programs include clinical counseling and mental health services, crisis intervention, violence prevention and a restorative justice effort designed to cut off the school-to-prison pipeline by reforming disciplinary policies.
~$40 million between 2009 and 2014.
MuckRock reported last November that Philadelphia taxpayers had footed the bill for more than $40 million in police misconduct settlements filed after 2009 and settled before October 2014. More than $13 million of that total came from 29 suits over officer-involved shootings, including two separate $2.5 million settlements. In one case, officers fired 62 times into a stolen car when its two occupants reportedly refused to exit. The men, both black, were unarmed. One of them died, and the other was critically injured. No officer faced criminal charges in the case, and no disciplinary action was announced.
That’s enough money for Philadelphia to fund a new center to teach career skills to high school students more than six times over.
The $6 million Center for Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing is slated to open later this year, and will provide students with a variety of job training skills designed to give them access to industries that currently have trouble filling vacancies. The center is being built as a renovated wing at Benjamin Franklin High School, but will accept applications from students across the city. Many of the programs offered at the facility, which include electromechanical manufacturing and renewable-energy technology, aren’t offered anywhere else in Philadelphia schools.
How We Can Help
If you, a friend or a family member find themselves in a situation such as this, please call the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A. at 305 670-3330 right away. Scott A. Ferris, Esq. is a licensed family law attorney who has been practicing law since 1987. He is available whenever you need him to pursue your rights. Please learn about our firm at www.FerrisLawFirm.com.
Republished by the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A.