The Financial Burden of Police Misconduct

Demonstrator at a George Floyd protest holding up a Defund the Police sign on June 5, 2020
Demonstrator at a George Floyd protest holding up a Defund the Police sign on June 5, 2020 — Image by Taymaz Valley via Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

Originally published on Medium on September 9, 2020

The broad implications of police misconduct include a staggering financial burden

The outlay of police misconduct is often measured in human costs. Whether it’s a loss of life, lasting trauma as a victim or a victim’s family, or the harm it does to entire communities. What is rarely openly discussed are the financial burdens of police misconduct on society. Since human costs don’t appeal to people, perhaps the financial costs will. You know, since some Americans are so concerned with the costs of things like social programs and a few broken windows.

Let me be clear about something, I’m not here to debate rioting, looting, or burning buildings despite who’s been behind most of it. But you can’t talk about the cost of peaceful protests or rioting provoked by police misconduct without talking about the cost of that police misconduct. With much of local law enforcement’s funding coming from the federal level, every time a city pays out for a police misconduct suit, it costs every American.

On the local level and aside from taxpayer dollars, many cities cover the costs of reckless policing in creative ways. Larger cities in particular will issue bonds to cover the costs of police misconduct cases. Issuing bonds proved crucial for the city of Chicago, a city plagued with police violence and countless lawsuits for police misconduct over the last several decades.

The Action Center on Race & the Economy (ACRE) refers to these bonds as “police brutality bonds” and describes them as “financial instruments that transfer resources and extract wealth from underserved communities” (Black, Latino, Indigenous) to Wall St. through “the fees banks charge to cities for these bonds.” The funds from these bonds, which are typically used when cities are struggling financially, along with cutbacks to over-funded police departments, is money better-used to fix schools, hospitals, social services, and infrastructure in minority communities.

Police budgets all over the country make up an enormous percentage of a city’s funds. Before the pandemic, several groups were on the ground nationwide calling for divestment from the police. Those calls were never solely about police brutality. Rather, the calls were driven by the impact overfunding police has on other programs while cities struggle to make ends meet.

“You can remember that after the last recession everything was cut, but police budgets weren’t.”

Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of ACRE.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year to settle misconduct cases. Rather than accept reforms that will lead to corrective action against the myriad problems in America’s law enforcement apparatus, society seems content to have coalesced into a blob of indifference to militarized police occupying underserved communities. It’s maddening and scary.

The Numbers

The movement to defund the police and reallocating some of the funding to crime prevention programs intersect with the fight against police brutality when talking about funding. One of the major issues of contention with defunding the police revolves around social programs being cut in order to pay for a persistently large number of police misconduct lawsuits.

Cities and towns across the country have cut funding from social programs in order to meet the budget shortfalls caused by exorbitant amounts of money being paid out because of cops with disregard for policy, the law, citizen’s civil liberties, or just blatant racism. Full disclosure: I’ve reported extensively on white supremacists infiltrating police forces and we now know far too many police misconduct cases every year are a direct result of that infiltration.

So what are the costs? Let’s take a look:

New York City: What can you say about the largest and one of the oldest police forces in America? The department as a whole also comes in first in another category: the amount of money paid out to police misconduct lawsuits every year. Most are thinking since the NYPD is the largest police force in the country, that makes sense. But an officer in New York City carries a police misconduct burden of nearly $4,700 per officer, while in Miami, that burden is under $300 per officer. In other words, no. It doesn’t make sense.

It’s alarming.

According to the comptroller’s annual report, NYPD police misconduct cases, which are settled through the comptroller’s office, totaled $220.1 million for the 2019 fiscal year. From 2006 until 2011, the NYPD cost taxpayers $348 million. But in 2017 the department cost the city $338.2 million and in 2018 they cost citizens $237.4 million. If this feels like absurd amounts of money, that’s because they absolutely are.

Los Angeles: According to the city’s chief executive risk management’s annual report, Los Angeles has seen an increase in lawsuits filed against law enforcement over the last three years. In 2019, LA county spent $91.5 million on police misconduct cases. In 2018, they spent $73.7 million and in 2017 the county spent $40.6 million. The police misconduct liability for an officer in Los Angeles hovers at $3,000 per officer.

Chicago: The Chicago Police Department makes up 37% of the $4.4 billion Corporate Fund (the city’s budget). According to data released by the city’s Law Department, Chicago spent $113 million on police misconduct lawsuits in 2018 — the highest since 2011. In Chicago, a police officer carries a police misconduct liability of just under $4,000 per officer.

In 2017, Chicago took out $225 million in bonds to pay police settlement debts, according to one of the bondholders at ACRE. The letter was part of a campaign by ACRE to raise awareness about how banks profit from settlements through fees and interest they charge for underwriting.

Smaller cities, such as Minneapolis, are all too familiar with how much police misconduct cases can cost a city. It paid more than $25 million in settlements between 2003 and 2019. That includes the $20 million that was paid out for the killing of Justine Ruszczyk and the $800,000 paid for the killing of Terrence Franklin.

Other small cities such as Buffalo, who’s numbers feel less alarming at $12 million over five years, carry an officer police misconduct liability of about $3,400 per officer — placing them in the top 3 in this category.

Funding

Increasingly, funding for law enforcement comes from the federal government via departments ranging from the Department of Justice to the Department of Agriculture. Many federal agencies offer grant programs aimed at hiring more police, equipping police officers, and constructing new facilities for police. Other grant programs specifically fund the militarization of local police.

Experts and activists alike argue that the federal funding of local police takes power away from the citizens’ police are tasked to serve, undermines local and community accountability, and has a sharp focus on enforcement rather than minimizing harm. A fact that could not be more evident than the expediency behind the federal government militarizing the police while taking a back seat to ensure every officer has body cameras or non-lethal weapons that are worn at all times.

Nationwide, Americans spend $100 billion each year with police budgets comprising 20% to 45% of the budgets in cities across the country, according to a report by the Center for Popular Democracy Action. All three levels of government — federal, state, and local — contribute to the cost of police protection. Their contributions, however, vary. In 2015, local governments paid for more than two-thirds of police spending with the federal government coming in second at 20.4%, and state governments at 11%.

Most cities don’t carry insurance to cover settlement costs for police misconduct. They are self-insured, so the vast majority of payments come out of a city’s general operating funds. When looking at the yearly costs in most American cities, it becomes clear that police misconduct settlement claims take a major chunk out of a city’s finances. Those shortfalls end up impacting social programs that are needed. Particularly in underserved communities.

According to a survey by the DOJ, approximately 1.1% of people who believe they were the victims of police misconduct actually sue. The costs of these settlements impact citizens who have no fault in what cities or their police do. Those citizens suffer by losing community programs because the costs of settlements sometimes swallow entire city budgets.

Of the more popular programs run by the federal government, the Community Oriented Policing Services program (COPS), which was established as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, is an initiative run by the DOJ. According to the DOJ, the program has provided $14 billion since its inception to hire and train local police officers. Bill Barr awarded $400 million to the program for the fiscal year 2020 and Joe Biden has pledged an additional $300 million for the COPS program.

The amount of money Americans spend on law enforcement efficiency — rewarding arrests and convictions — serves no purpose in holding police accountable or protecting the public from cops who flout policy, the law, or are motivated by hateful beliefs. Furthermore, with police responding to violent crime in 10 minutes or less only 58% of the time, Americans should begin to question the effectiveness of our current policing apparatus.

Which can be corrected through comprehensive police reform.


Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice. He collaborates with many in Academia in discussing the issues mentioned here. If you’d like to learn more, follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here.

Arturo Dominguez

Arturo Dominguez

Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice.
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