Millions paid out in judgments for abusive officers as cities cut services, furlough workers

LOS ANGELES ( – Abusive cops are costing already cash-strapped cities across the U.S. millions of dollars in settlements but civil rights activists and attorneys warn that the payouts will continue unless the criminal justice system begins to prosecute its out-of-control officers.

“Obviously we are in a major budget crisis, which has personally affected me,” said author, activist and syndicated columnist Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, referring to a local community college Spanish class he had signed up for, but was cancelled due to state budget cuts.


“Already within a space of three months we’ve seen how this crisis has gotten bigger and bigger and people are hurt by this. This is not just some abstract numbers, but this affects real peoples’ lives. We’ve seen how it affects healthcare, education, welfare, and jobs–whether public or private–public services, DMV, mental health facilities and processing job applications.There is real pain and suffering,” Dr. Hutchinson said.

On Feb. 4, the Los Angeles City Council authorized a $12.85 million settlement to demonstrators who were injured when officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) used excessive force to break up a peaceful May Day rally in MacArthur Park last year.More than 300 claims were filed against the city.

That same day in Oakland, Atty. John Burris filed a $1.5 million claim against the Bay Area Rapid Transit District and former transit officer Johannes Mehserle.Mr. Mehserle shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant, III in the back while he had apparently been subdued.

Atty. Burris filed the claim on behalf of five others who were with Mr. Grant that New Year’s Day and alleged that they were also abused by BART police.

On Jan. 28, the L.A. City Council also approved a $20.5 million settlement for four LAPD officers who charged that they were wrongfully prosecuted during the 1990s Rampart corruption scandal. But previous settlements to Rampart victims of police misconduct totaled about $75.5 million.The notorious scandal was uncovered when Rafael Perez, a member of the CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) Gang Unit, testified as a police informant that he and other officers often falsely accused and framed gang members for crimes.

“Cities and counties around the nation are hurting badly but is that to say that it’s going to make the LAPD any better in terms of how they police, hire and promote in terms of more minority sensitive?I don’t think so.I just think it’s going to increase the liability of taxpayers,” Dr. Hutchinson said.

If cities have to pay $12 million settlements, they simply rob Peter to pay Paul. “They will pull the money from somewhere else, library, park, playground service hours.They’ll find it by not funding after school nutrition programs.It has a rippling effect and it is caused by a mandated court order,” Dr. Hutchinson said.

According to the non-partisan California Budget Project, which works to improve “public policies affecting the economic and social well-being of low- and middle-income Californians,” people who have been and stand to be impacted by the current statewide budget crisis include:

– 1,544,710 public school students, due to cuts to five of the largest funding allocations;

– 66,140 low-income children dropped from the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids Program;

– 418,840 low-income seniors and persons with disabilities who would lose the state cost-of-living adjustment for Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment cash assistance grants;

– 61,590 low-income children in 2008-09–and a total of 112,140 children by 2009-10 –who would lose Medi-Cal coverage due to increased paperwork requirements; and

– 249,220 children enrolled in the Healthy Families Program, which provides low-cost health coverage for children in low-income working families.

In Chicago the mayor has put city employees on unpaid leave to help fill a budget shortfall. But a little over a year ago, Chicago officials agreed to pay $19.8 million to four men who suffered police torture under then-commander Jon Burge.Some $30 million has been spent to settle assorted lawsuits connected with the case, which stretches back to abuses during the 1980s and 1990s. Mayor Richard Daley proposed a two-to-three day furlough for more than 4,000 non-union workers to ease the city’s budgetary crisis.

The $30 million payout doesn’t count millions of dollars spent defending Mr. Burge after he was fired by the police department in 1993, said a staffer at the People’s Law Office, which has represented torture victims. City attorneys and private attorneys were paid to defend a man whose firing bore witness to his guilt, said the staffer. This doesn’t even count the human toll, which is worse, because of how Blacks, Latinos and the poor are abused by officers, said the staffer.

Big price tags for cop abuses aren’t new

Current budget problems may cause taxpayers to take a look at how their money is spent, but in Chicago $18 million was paid to the family of LaTanya Haggerty, a Black woman shot to death by police in 1999. In 1995, a New York Times editorial noted that in the “cash-starved” Big Apple, brutality settlements and court judgments cost the city $87 million over five years. The Rodney King beating cost Los Angeles $3.8 million in a settlement and estimates for property damage hit $700 million after riots when officers involved were acquitted. In 2001, the city of New York shelled out $7.125 million in the infamous Abner Louima case, in which the Haitian immigrant was assaulted with a plunger by officers in a precinct bathroom.

“This is shameful because right now if you’re already suffering from a $150 million budget deficit and you have three or four huge lawsuits, you have to find that money, so it makes sense to train and educate officers on the front end rather than pay for settlements on the back,” said Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association.

“All their priorities are turned upside down and instead of discouraging more police brutality from occurring, they are basically encouraging it.The money could have been used to offset all of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts,” said John Parker, west coast coordinator of the International Action Center, in Los Angeles.With the exception of the Grant case, it is rare that police officers face any possible penalty for excessive force and misconduct, Mr. Parker said.

Police watch groups say that another challenge to police misconduct is being able to track the numerous settlement cases and how they balance with criminal prosecutions of officers.

Information about settlements may be secret

The ease or difficulty of getting records of payments in police misconduct cases depends on the particular state and state law, according to Brigitt Keller, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project. For example, Ms. Keller said, in Massachusetts, settlements paid out of the city’s budget are public record and the terms can be made available with a public records request.However, settlements paid through insurance companies may be confidential.

According to civil rights attorneys, since many abuse cases never make it to trial, the real costs of these settlements are unknown.“Many civil rights cases are dismissed on summary judgment, a method that individual judges use to dismiss or get rid of cases.Many are dismissed by White judges, often in federal court, and there’s no recognition by the judge of the racial issues in the case,” said civil rights attorney Christopher Cooper, of Merrillville, Ind., outside of Chicago.Lawyers’ best advice to plaintiffs, especially if they are Black, is for them to take the settlement or risk having their case tossed out, he said.

Atty. Michael Haddad, who has been fighting civil rights cases for 17 years, said the settlements are only the tip of the iceberg because attorneys probably talk to 100 people who say police abused them before they can take one case. “It’s so hard to prove these cases because the juries like to give police the benefit of the doubt … so the high cost is high but the human cost is much higher because the vast majority of victims never get compensated,” said the Oakland-based lawyer.

Unfortunately, Atty. Haddad added, the settlements create budgetary problems because most cities don’t plan for it, but some cities have insurance that kicks in after so many millions. They could save so much more if they spent money to prevent the misconduct in the first place, he said.

Atty. Haddad said that in a 2004 lawsuit he filed in Oakland, the police chief acknowledged a longstanding pattern of improper strip searches of people on the street.After four years, his firm uncovered some 40 victims of the strip searches. In 2008, although a federal judge ruled that the policies were unconstitutional, the city has not revised the policy and continues to use it.

“Now they’re facing a very big case with these 40 plaintiffs and probably will end up having to pay a significant amount of money to these victims,” Atty. Haddad said.

Legal challenges to police abuse expensive, rare

Kenavon “KC” Carter, an Austin, Texas-based criminal defense attorney, said it is important to understand that the battle against police brutality will not be won with lawsuits alone.“It’s going to take community organizing, public education and a legislative strategy to put pressure on police departments and city councils to hold their officers accountable,” he said.

According to Atty. Carter, it takes at least $50,000 to even bring a civil rights lawsuit alleging police brutality.Such cases are difficult to win because police officers are protected by the principle of qualified immunity, he said.“All an officer has to say when they’ve shot some brother down in the street, in the back, is that they had to make a split second decision, and that decision was to use deadly force.The courts allow them to get a pass,” he said.

“A lot of civil rights organizations, ACLU, NAACP and others are really picking and choosing cases to litigate on because they’re so expensive.They’re not successful and really not an effective strategy on holding police accountable for the conduct of their officers.”

Atty. Carter established Hip Hop Against Police Brutality Project under the sponsorship of the Texas ACLU’s Police Accountability Office. What he has found throughout his legal career is that along with city councils,the real power brokers for police misconduct are district attorneys and police chiefs from civil settlements to criminal prosecutions.

District attorneys are elected officials, so if communities are dissatisfied with their performances, one option is to vote them out, Atty. Carter said.The problem is, however, police officers have strong police unions that put a great deal of pressure on police chiefs, district attorneys and whoever they feel is a threat to cops who step out of line.

On the other hand, Atty. Carter added, citizens have to give good D.A.s political cover when they try to do the right thing.“D.A. Craig Watkins in Dallas, Texas, who is Black, has reopened and overturned 20 wrongful convictions placed on the books by the former D.A. because he saw a pattern of wrongdoing, but now he’s under pressure by the rest of his class of prosecutors to ease up.He’s going to be in trouble in the next election if people don’t stand up and when we finally have somebody really about justice, doing the right thing, we can’t afford to leave him out to dry,” he said.

In its 1999 report entitled, “Shielded From Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States,” Human Rights Watch indicated that race has played a central role in police brutality in the United States. “In the cities we have examined where such data are available, minorities have alleged human rights violations by police more frequently than white residents and far out of proportion to their representation in those cities. Police have subjected minorities to apparently discriminatory treatment and have physically abused minorities while using racial epithets,” the document read. Human Rights Watch hasn’t followed up on that major report made a decade ago because of money problems and has discontinued domestic monitoring of police misconduct.