Want to cut down on police brutality? Make police pay for their own misbehavior.

It would be good for taxpayers — and justice

Police brutality
(Image credit: (Yana Paskova/Getty Images))

Eric Garner's family plans to sue the New York Police Department for $75 million. Tamir Rice's parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit. Michael Brown's family may likewise launch a civil suit against the St. Louis police.

No matter the outcome of these three legal actions, they're already guaranteed to have at least one thing in common: Any settlement award would be overwhelmingly (if not completely) paid by taxpayers, while the police officers responsible for the deaths of Garner, Rice, and Brown would be mostly or entirely let off the financial hook.

This phenomenon is not unique to these cases or locales. Indeed, it is common practice for the monetary costs of suits alleging police misconduct — however grave — to be shifted away from the officers responsible.

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One study from June 2014 calculated that taxpayers picked up the tab for no less than 99.98 percent of the $730 million paid to victims of civil rights violations by 44 of the largest police departments from 2006 to 2011. New York City is relatively unusual in that it requires "officers to contribute small amounts when officers have been found to be acting outside of policy." Elsewhere, even when the police departments involved agreed with the courts' decisions and fired or otherwise punished the cops in question, officers' bank accounts remain untouched.

In midsize and smaller cities, the same study noted, officers "never contributed to settlements or judgments in lawsuits brought against them." In fact, in jurisdictions where it is illegal to shield police from paying (or at least contributing to) their own settlement costs, many local governments simply ignore the law and financially shield cops anyway.

Proponents of this system argue, as the Supreme Court did in Forrester v. White (1988), that "the threat of personal liability for damages can inhibit government officials in the proper performance of their duties." Police who are preoccupied with protecting their pocketbooks may be overly cautious while pursuing criminals, the reasoning goes, so it's important to protect them from frivolous lawsuits which could ruin them financially.

But in practice, police already exist as a special legal class, enjoying many protections not afforded to the rest of us. Cops are significantly less like to be indicted or convicted than regular citizens, and they are often afforded an extra measure of privacy in any tangle with the justice system. In Chicago specifically, police officers accused of the worst types of abuse, like rape and excessive force, face a one in 500 chance of experiencing any consequences more serious than a one-week suspension.

And in the meantime, the costs of these settlement payments quickly pile up, as victims and their families in the more shocking or widely publicized cases may successfully sue for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. New York City taxpayers paid out some $735 million for police misconduct settlements in 2012 alone, and the NYPD expects annual settlement spending to top $800 million by 2016.

Cleveland recently agreed to pay $3 million to the families of two men who were killed by police. In August, L.A. settled the death of an unarmed veteran for $5 million. By comparison, Denver has gotten off easy, spending not quite $11 million on police settlements involving brutality or civil rights violations in the last decade.

But it gets worse. Taxpayers "in some cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, are paying three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police 'defense' funds provided by the cities," according to research from Human Rights Watch. Suffice it to say taxpayers aren't getting a good deal.

Of course, some suits do manage to make officers pay. This typically requires a special demand by the victims or their families in pursuit of accountability, and it frequently results in a far smaller settlement. "[These victims] want an acknowledgment that the police did them wrong or hurt them," says Craig Futterman, a professor at University of Chicago Law. "That's why some of these settlements are for such small amounts."

Maybe more important than the size of the award, however, is the incentive provided by mandating police contribution to settlements.

While requiring cops to wear body cameras seems like a necessary step toward accountability post-Ferguson, the lack of indictment for Eric Garner's death (which was caught on camera) suggests video alone may not do the trick. Cynical though it might sound, making police officers more financially responsible for their behavior could be a stronger incentive for justice — not to mention a boon to taxpayers now paying thrice over for systemic police brutality.

With a fixed requirement of, say, 50 percent officer contribution, settlement awards would be far lower to ensure they could be collected. Yet what these awards might lose in size they would gain in meaning, giving the victim and his family a greater sense of justice.

Even more important, however, is to avoid instances of police brutality in the first place. And if monetary penalties can effectively (and literally) raise the cost of police engaging in abusive behavior, this reform is definitely worth a try.

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