Millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded settlement payments to the families of victims of police shootings over the past decade have done little to curb police misconduct while impoverishing communities where the misconduct occurred, argues one from the Texas Southern University published Policy Brief (TU).
Instead, the most effective way to hold police accountable for wrongdoing is to burden police forces themselves with their insurance plans, writes Dasshawn Ray, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Civil payments for police misconduct burden local governments and absolve police officers from guilt,” Ray wrote in the article, written for the Center for Justice Research and housed in TSU’s Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs.
Ray noted the disconnect between the huge settlements paid for in some of the most notorious officer-involved shootings in recent decades and efforts to hold the officers involved accountable for their actions.
For example, the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson Mo., resulted in a $1.5 million payout to the Brown family. But a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer involved.
In fact, Ray noted, “Wilson resigned (from the troupe) shortly after the grand jury’s decision and was living on the $500,000 in donations he received.”
“How does a homicide be justified in a criminal court and counted as a wrongful death in a civil court?” asked Ray.
“How come an incident classified as excessive violence doesn’t show up on a police officer’s record? How can an officer involved in a wrongful death incident get another law enforcement job?
“Loopholes in the criminal justice system largely exonerate police officers, often allowing them to get away with murder, exonerating them from fines and often authorizing their ability to quit, collect their pensions and get a new law enforcement job.”
Ray noted that the huge cost to taxpayers was offset by other civil settlements over the decade, including $50 million paid by the City of Baltimore and $650 million paid by the City of Chicago for misconduct settlements in have been paid in the last 20 years.
“These funds do not include attorneys’ fees to defend the officers involved, the police department and the city in court,” Ray wrote.
But he said the payments had not curbed fatal incidents of excessive force.
“Approximately every eight hours a person is killed by police in the United States,” he wrote. “Although violent crime has declined over the past 20 years, police killings have increased by about 25 percent over the same period.”
Ray said some of the efforts to curb the behavior, such as outfitting officers with body cameras, have been partially effective. But he added that they are “missing their targets because they don’t address the lack of accountability.”
Most officers have personal insurance and departmental injury insurance, but the plans generally do not cover wrongdoing, the paper noted.
Reorganizing the civilian payout system to hold police insurance companies liable for wrongdoing is not a new proposal, Ray claimed.
“In fact, in healthcare, we use it on the patient side and the doctor side,” he wrote. “Previously, the premium for patients with previous illnesses was higher than for patients without previous illnesses. In the case of doctors and hospitals, those more vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits are seeing their insurance premiums increase.
“Police agencies can take similar action.”
The restructuring will also allow insurance companies to set prices based on the number of malpractice settlements and cases registered in a jurisdiction.
They “can decide whether to keep the department, raise the rate, or lower the rate,” Ray wrote. “Then cities can decide how to limit funding for police departments based on that cost.”
Ray argued that his proposal would relieve city budgets.
“By restructuring police-civilian payouts from taxpayers’ money to police insurance, money normally spent on civilian payouts and attorneys’ fees can be used for education, jobs and infrastructure,” he claimed.
“And job creation will indirectly reduce crime in local communities.”
In addition, he added, putting a price tag on accountability will “ultimately reduce police killings and police use of force.”
Rashawn Ray, Ph.D., is a member of the Center for Justice Research’s National Police Reform Advisory Group, housed at TSU. He is also a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Professor of Sociology and Executive Director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research (LASSR) at the University of Maryland, College Park. His policy paper can be downloaded here.