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Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
Who shoulders the big payouts in police misconduct cases?
Jaeah LeeJan. 22, 2015 7:00 AM
Update, July 13, 2015: The City of New York has agreed to pay $5.9 million to settle the wrongful death complaint filed by Eric Garner's family members, according to the New York Times.
When police officers kill unarmed citizens they are rarely charged, let alone convicted of a crime. The victims' families often turn to civil complaints against the police, as is currently the case in New York City, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, where wrongful death and other civil rights claims filed in the wake of officer-involved killings could result in payouts tallying in the millions of dollars. Still, the police officers involved are likely to suffer no financial pain. That's because in the vast majority of such cases, whether they are settled or go to court, the officers don't pay a dime.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer is currently reviewing civil claims brought by the family of Eric Garner, the 43-year old Staten Island man who died in July 2014 after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold. The $75 million worth of claims include wrongful death, assault, pain and suffering, and negligent hiring and training by the NYPD. But if the city decides to settle the case with the Garner family, a spokesperson for the comptroller told Mother Jones, Pantaleo will pay nothing.
Officer Pantaleo remains protected from financial liability despite that he was the subject of at least three civil rights lawsuits before the death of Eric Garner.
Instead, taxpayers will shoulder the cost. Between 2006 and 2011, New York City paid out $348 million in settlements or judgments in cases pertaining to civil rights violations by police, according to a UCLA study published in June 2014. Those nearly 7,000 misconduct cases included allegations of excessive use of force, sexual assault, unreasonable searches, andfalse arrests. More than 99 percent of the payouts came from the city's municipal budget, which has a line item dedicated to settlements and judgments each year. (The city did require police to pay a tiny fraction of the total damages, with officers personally contributing in less than 1 percent of the cases for a total of $114,000.)
This scenario is typical of police departments across the country, says the study's author Joanna Schwartz, who analyzed records from 81 law enforcement agencies employing 20 percent of the nation's approximately 765,000 police officers. (The NYPD, which is responsible for three-quarters of the cases in the study, employs just over 36,000 officers.) Out of the more than $735 million paid out by cities and counties for police misconduct between 2006 and 2011, government budgets paid more than 99 percent. Local laws indemnifying officers from responsibility for such damages vary, but "there is little variation in the outcome," Schwartz wrote. "Officers almost never pay."
Even if the Garner family were to take its case to court and prevail, the chances of Pantaleo paying are extremely remote. The 34 cases in the study where New York City officers paid some amount were all resolved with settlements, Schwartz notes, not with judgments in court, which few such cases ever reach.
Moreover, Pantaleo remains protected from financial liability despite that he was the subject of at least three civil rights lawsuits before the death of Garner. One case, in 2013, involved two men from Staten Island who alleged that Pantaleo and three other officers unlawfully stopped and ordered them from their vehicle, then pulled down their pants and "touched and searched their genital areas, or stood by while this was done in their presence." The city paid a $30,000 settlement to the plaintiffs, while the officers paid nothing. Two other lawsuits stemming from a 2012 incident alleged that Pantaleo and other NYPD officers falsely arrested and imprisoned two men, according to federal court records. (Both of those cases are pending.)
Families of unarmed victims shot dead by police have recently filed claims in Cleveland, where police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice over a pellet gun, and in Los Angeles, where officers shot 25-year-old Ezell Ford three times after he allegedly tried to reach for an officer's gun. According to Schwartz's study, Cleveland and LA both paid out millions in police misconduct claims between 2006-11. (See table below.) During that same period, St. Louis—which has become a focal point for police brutality ever since an unarmed Michael Brown was gunned down in the suburb of Ferguson in August 2014—paid out $2.7 million for civil rights claims against police. (The city did not provide Schwartz with details on how much if any of that sum officers were required to pay.) Brown's parents are considering filing a wrongful death claim but remain undecided about doing so, their attorney Anthony Gray told Mother Jones.
In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled that police officers should be afforded "qualified immunity" from civil rights claims brought by citizens—the risk of legal exposure could deter officers from carrying out their duties, the court has held—except in cases where an officer has violated "clearly established law." Yet, in other cases the Supreme Court has ruled that municipalities should not be liable for damages incurred by its employees, and that punitive damages can't be awarded against cities. In a 1981 majority opinion, Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun stated that if municipalities were held liable for civil claims, it could lead to tax hikes or "a reduction of public services for the citizens footing the bill. Neither reason nor justice suggests that such retribution should be visited upon the shoulders of blameless or unknowing taxpayers." But in Schwartz's view, cities requiring so few officers to pay even for punitive damages "goes against the spirit of that decision."
And the full extent of the costs to taxpayers remains unclear, she notes. Out of the 140 municipal, county, and state law enforcement agencies that Schwartz requested records from, only 44 provided extensive data, as detailed in the table below. While additional police departments provided some information on misconduct, the data either did not specify civil rights cases or was too incomplete to analyze.
Top image: Screenshot from a video taken by a witness to the Eric Garner incident.
When President Obama celebrated the rapid advances of marriage equality across the country during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, House majority leader John Boehner, the highest-ranking Republican in Congress, remained seated, unamused.
Here's what Obama said: "I've watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains; from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I've seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home."
Here's how Boehner reacted:
Share your favorite Boehner reactions in the comments below.
And they're racially divided on who's to blame for the ongoing tensions between the mayor and NYPD, a new poll shows.
Jaeah LeeJan. 15, 2015 10:14 PM
A new public opinion poll shows that an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers—nearly 80 percent—believe police union leader Patrick Lynch was "too extreme" in saying that the mayor's office had blood on its hands for supporting the Mike Brown and Eric Garner protests. The poll comes amid persisting tensions between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD officers, and union leaders, which came to a head after two cops were shot and killed in Brooklyn on December 20. The Quinnipiac University poll, published Thursday, showed that 69 percent of New Yorkers disapproved of police officers turning their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio as an act of protest during the funerals of recently slain officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
The poll also revealed stark racial divides in New Yorkers' opinions on the mayor's handling of relations between the police and the community: 62 percent of black respondents approved, while 63 percent of white respondents disapproved. They were similarly divided on who they believed was at fault for the ongoing tensions between de Blasio and the NYPD: 69 percent of black voters blamed police; 61 percent of white voters blamed the mayor.
A recent poll showed tensions were already running high.
Jaeah LeeJan. 8, 2015 7:00 AM
In a sense, many in France saw it coming. The massacre carried out by masked gunmen on Wednesday at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo appears to have fulfilled widespread fears: According to a Pew Research Center poll from last October, French citizens viewed religious and ethnic hatred—along with the gap between the rich and poor—to be the world's greatest threat:
Citizens of the United Kingdom and Germany also saw religious and ethnic hatred as a prime danger, while that category topped the list in most countries surveyed in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
In France—a constitutionally secular country with an estimated 5 million Muslims and a recent history of violence rooted in ethnic strife—the Pew findings suggest persistent concerns about rising tensions and Islamic extremism, as these results from its 2010 survey show:
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, somesuspectthat the incident is likely to speed up the spread of anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiment in France and the rest of Europe, particularly among far-right groups like France's National Front.
"This is a dangerous moment for European societies," Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London, told the New York Times. "With increasing radicalization among supporters of jihadist organizations and the white working class increasingly feeling disenfranchised and uncoupled from elites, things are coming to a head."
Witness 40's story has unraveled. Sean Hannity used it at least 21 times to defend Darren Wilson.
Jaeah LeeDec. 18, 2014 7:00 AM
On December 8, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch released additional details about the grand jury documents his office made public last month after no charges were brought against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. As a result, more details have come to light showing that the testimony of one particular grand jury witness was a sham—testimony that was repeatedly touted by Fox News' Sean Hannity and other pundits who defended Wilson and the grand jury's decision.
The Smoking Gun reported this week that after it pieced together the identity of "Witness 40" using the latest information from McCulloch's office, 45-year-old St. Louis resident Sandra McElroy confirmed that she was indeed that witness. Her role in the grand jury proceedings had already gained notoriety in part for her journal entry recounting Wilson's confrontation with Brown, which was submitted as evidence and included some bizarre and racially charged comments.
TSG'sreport added to a picture of inconsistencieswith McElroy's testimony, such as why she had been in Ferguson that day. (An explanation that started out as her visiting an old friend later changed to her taking "a random drive to Florisant" because she needed to "understand the Black race better.") And while her account to investigators about the violence that occurred on August 9 hewed closely to Wilson's version of events, during her testimony prosecutors noted that details from video footage and maps of the area didn't jibe with her claims. Moreover, TSG dug up documents detailing McElroy's involvement in a 2007 kidnapping case in St. Louis County, in which she gave testimony that police later determined was "a complete fabrication."