Settlements for police misconduct lawsuits cost taxpayers from coast to coast

New York City has paid at least $35 million to settle allegations of civil rights violations by police against people protesting the 2020 death of George Floyd. Pasadena, California paid the children of Anthony McLain $7.5 million in a 2021 settlement after their father was killed fleeing a traffic stop. 

In Texas, San Antonio settled a wrongful death lawsuit in 2022 with the family of Antronie Scott for $450,000 after an unarmed Scott was shot and killed by a police officer. In Graham, a small town in North Carolina, alleged excessive use of force by police during a voting rights march led to a $336,900 settlement in 2021

Cities can face hundreds of lawsuits related to police misconduct each year — often related to the conduct of just a few officers — and while the payouts vary wildly, settlements are almost always funded by taxpayers. Police officers have qualified immunity, which means they are generally shielded from criminal prosecution, so for people alleging misconduct, lawsuits may be the only recourse. 

“There are ongoing, continuous, regular settlements for police misconduct,” said Anne Houghtaling, an attorney and the senior deputy director of strategic initiatives at the Legal Defense Fund, which operates the National Police Funding Database through its Thurgood Marshall Institute. The database looks at police misconduct data, among other information. “It seems almost as if it’s a cost of doing business in some jurisdictions.” 

What are police misconduct settlements? 

Police misconduct settlements are agreements made when a civil suit alleging civil rights violations is resolved out of court instead of at trial.  

Settlements usually result in at least one of two outcomes: The person or estate bringing the case can receive money, or, more rarely, a policy change may follow the settlement. Settlements rarely include an admission of wrongdoing or guilt, said Joanna Schwartz, an attorney, law professor and the faculty director of the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law. 

Protests Against Police Brutality Over Death Of George Floyd Continue In NYC
NYPD officers spray Mace into a crowd of protesters on May 29, 2020.

(C)Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

John J. Catanzara Jr., who heads Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, told CBS News that he did not believe settlements should be entered into, criticizing them as a way to avoid litigation. 

“I think they serve a very negative kind of role, more than anything else, because they kind of blacklist an officer for doing something wrong,” the police union chief said. He told CBS News that he believed lawsuits that plaintiffs’ wins in court are “realistically few and far between,” but didn’t elaborate on what those cases might be or provide specific numbers about how many lawsuits he believes are not meritorious. 

While these settlements occur regularly, it can be hard to find clear-cut data on them. Houghtaling told CBS News that the National Police Funding Database has data on settlements going back “roughly 10 to 15 years.” Houghtaling said the limited data makes it hard to establish clear trends, but said there has been an increase in settlements since 2020, when protests erupted after the death of George Floyd — many only being reported recently. 

Who pays for a police misconduct settlement? 

Almost no settlements are paid out by the police officers accused of misconduct, researchers and data show. The cost is often borne by taxpayers, said Houghtaling. In some states, departments or municipal governments will also provide officers with a lawyer or cover their legal fees, Schwartz said. 

“There’s a level of police officers not being held individually accountable, and so they’re not paying for the settlements,” Houghtaling said. “Their police departments are, and those departments are funded by tax dollars.” 

Departments even budget for such settlements, Schwartz said. Her research shows that “in most jurisdictions, payouts in police misconduct cases are less than 1% of local government’s budgets.” On average, funding a police department takes about a third or a quarter of a city’s budget, Schwartz said. 

“New York City can have millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars to pay up and it’s still less than 1% of the government’s budget,” Schwartz said. “It is a lot of money, it’s money that … could be definitely spent in other, better ways if there wasn’t this misconduct happening. But it’s also true that it is a relatively small number in the perspective of the budget overall.” 

In a 2016 study that looked at 100 government budgets across the country, Schwartz found that there are a “variety of different ways in which these settlements and judgments” are paid. In smaller jurisdictions, municipal liability insurers pay the settlements, Schwartz said, but arrangements vary in larger municipalities and big cities. This can include departments contributing to a central litigation fund, which is the case for the New York City Police Department. 

In other cities, the settlement money comes from a police department’s budget, but if the settlement costs are over budget, officials may end up requesting more money from the city council. This is the case in cities like Chicago, Schwartz said, where the money for a settlement “does technically come from the police department’s budget, but does not have any financial impact on the police department’s budget.” When that happens, Schwartz said, it can affect other city services.

“When there’s a need for more money, and the police department goes back to the city, they have to pull that money from other parts of the city’s budget,” Schwartz said. “As a matter of political reality, that money gets pulled from the crevices of a budget that are earmarked to help the least powerful.” 

Do these settlements lead to less misconduct? 

Police settlement costs themselves don’t appear to deter misconduct, Schwartz and Houghtaling said, because those costs rarely impact an individual officer. 

An investigation conducted by the Washington Post in March 2022 and cited by Houghtaling found that just a small number of officers are responsible for multiple settlements, with the Post reporting that more than 7,600 officers have been involved in more than one settlement, costing about $1.5 billion nationwide in the past 10 years. More than 1,200 officers in departments surveyed by the Washington Post had been involved in at least five settlements, and more than 200 officers had 10 or more. Houghtaling said that part of the problem with tracing repeated misconduct is that it’s hard to track incidents between departments. 

“There’s no national database of police officers that are terminated for misconduct,” Houghtaling said. “So they may commit misconduct in one jurisdiction and maybe lose their job there, and then go down the street 30 miles to a different city or county or get a new job. There is sort of this disconnect between accountability and the financial consequences for it.” 

Catanzara, the union head, said he didn’t see how settlements could serve as deterrents. 

Renewed calls for police reform following Tyre Nichols’ death


“Nobody can explain to me how that even makes sense,” he said. “Settlements are designed to get rid of a problem, so to speak, whether it’s justified or not.”

Because it’s “exceedingly rare” for settlements to include an admission of guilt or wrongdoing, according to Schwartz, a department can avoid admitting wrongdoing and make it harder for plaintiffs in future cases to use the facts of a previous case, leading to what Schwartz called “a systemic problem.” 

“When people are trying to show a pattern of misconduct in order to hold a local government responsible, you often have to show a pattern of prior misconduct that wasn’t properly addressed by the department … Courts have said that complaints and settlements are not proof in and of themselves, so the fact is many settlements can be inadequate to show a pattern of misconduct in the eyes of the courts,” Schwartz said. 

What can actually affect police misbehavior? 

There are ways to reduce police misconduct, experts said. Police departments can gather and analyze information from lawsuits brought against them, Schwartz said, and bring in outside auditors or attorneys to look at this data to “identify concerning trends in officers who have repeatedly been sued,” find “repeat allegations” against a particular department, squad or station, and determine if there are repeated issues suggesting “the need for more training or supervision.” 

One rigorous study conducted by the independent, nonpartisan National Policing Institute found that when police were trained “on the concepts of procedural justice and fairness,” crime and arrest rates in three different “high-crime areas” decreased, said Jim Burch, the research organization’s president.

According to the 2022 study, procedural justice is based on “giving people a voice, showing neutrality, treating people with respect, and showing trustworthy objectives.” Training officers in these techniques made them “significantly more likely to behave” in line with them. 

Other options could be looking at policies reducing or limiting use-of-force and changing whether police officers or a different, trained organization should respond to some situations, Burch and Schwartz both said.  

Settlements that result in policy change can be effective, according to experts interviewed by CBS News, but may require extra oversight to ensure the changes continue. Abdul Nassar Rad, the managing director of research and data at Campaign Zero, told CBS News that the stop-and-frisk monitor team overseeing the NYPD, established after multiple lawsuits challenged the policy, was a good example: Since 2013, the monitor team has reported on the department’s progress implementing court-ordered reforms related to stop-and-frisk policies. Nassar Rad said this has led to a decline in unconstitutional stops. 

Financial settlements in misconduct cases can be effective too — if individual officers shoulder some of the cost. Schwartz highlighted a new state law in Colorado that requires an officer who has been found by their department to have acted in bad faith must shoulder up to $25,000 or 5%, whichever is less, of a settlement. New York City has also “periodically required officers to contribute some amount to settlements in police misconduct cases when they violate policy,” Schwartz said. 

“We’ve talked a lot about deterrence and the ways in which deterrence doesn’t necessarily work in these cases, but these settlements also serve a compensatory goal, which I think is important to keep in mind as well,” Schwartz said. “There’s a lot more that local governments can do and should do to strengthen the effects of these suits on the officers and the departments that are behind them.” 

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