Police Brutality Settlement Costs THROUGH THE ROOF
NYC Paid $228 Million For Police Misconduct In The Last Fiscal Year
NYPD officers arrest a man at a protest against police brutality this summer. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
The city spent $228.5 million settling and paying out for judgments in police misconduct lawsuits in fiscal year 2016, according to the just-released Mayor’s Management Report. For perspective, that’s over a third of all the money the city paid out for lawsuits, almost as much as the $257 million budgeted for the entire Department of Aging, and 100 times what’s allocated for the city’s Conflict of Interest Board. For even more perspective, that’s 0.27 percent of the city’s entire 2016 budget, and about $27 per New Yorker.
The staggering figure continues a longstanding trend of growing misconduct payout totals. The latest total is approaching three times the $86.5 million the city paid out for police misconduct suits in 2005.
NYPD officers violating people’s civil rights and injuring them unnecessarily is nothing new, but what’s interesting is that the ballooning dollar amount going towards settling claims and satisfying court judgments is coinciding with a steady decline in complaints against the department. Consider that in 2012, people brought 5,700 complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and sued the NYPD 3,600 times. In FY 2016, there were 4,711 CCRB complaints and 2,933 lawsuits.
The disconnect has to do with the timing of court cases.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody filed a lawsuit about something that happened three years ago, and two years later, they are only maybe now talking about coming to a settlement,” civil rights lawyer David Rankin said. “Some of these cases can go on for 10 years.”
Rankin pointed out that some cases stemming from the arrests and mistreatment of protesters at the 2004 Republican National Convention took 10 years to reach a resolution. Those cases resulted in the city paying out nearly half a billion dollars over the years, including a big $18 million settlement in 2014. The $4 million the city is paying the family of Akai Gurley, shot in a stairwell by rookie cop Peter Liang in 2014, was announced last month and will fall in fiscal year 2017.
A map of personal injury claims against the police in 2014. Darker blue areas indicate higher rates of claims. (NYC Comptroller’s Office)
The increase is also in part tied to a handful of big-ticket, high-profile settlements each year. This year included the $40 million settlement to five men wrongfully convicted of the murder of a Bronx cab driver, in 1995, and 2014 was the year the city paid $40 million to the Central Park Five, railroaded for the infamous rape and beating of a jogger in 1989.
The city is actually trying to get more stingy when it comes to reaching for the checkbook to settle cop lawsuits. In 2014, Comptroller Scott Stringer rolled out a program called ClaimStat to track and map suits. Stringer’s office now says it’s pointing the NYPD to troubled commands, and evaluating whether it would make more sense to settle or fight a lawsuit earlier in the process. In 2016, the NYPD publicized a reorganization of its Legal Bureau that is meant to more aggressively investigate cases against the department, a function typically handled by the Law Department.
The NYPD is also sending lawyers to prosecute Black Lives Matter protesters’ summons cases, which is highly unusual given that a) the NYPD is not a district attorney’s office and b) New York district attorneys offices don’t prosecute cases in summons court. Protesters also happen to be frequent plaintiffs against the police, and the outcome of their criminal cases, no matter how low-level, affects the viability of their lawsuits.
Rankin, whose firm Rankin and Taylor makes most of its income suing law enforcement, said that on a day-to-day level, the city does seem to be trying to push down its settlement figures.
“We’re seeing, and I have anecdotally been hearing in the private bar that the city is tightening up settlements generally,” he said. “The number on average cases is going down.”
The decline in complaints coincides with the NYPD backing away from the aggressive, often unconstitutional approach that defined the tenure of Commissioner Ray Kelly, and gradually softening successor Bill Bratton’s signature Broken Windows approach, even as he resisted steps such as decriminalizing common low-level offenses, and his officers continued to primarily arrest black and Hispanic people for such offenses.
In 2011, the height of the NYPD’s use of the stop-and-frisk tactic to put people up against the wall without probable cause, officers made 685,000 stops and 249,239 misdemeanor arrests. In 2015, they made just 22,939 stop-and-frisk stops, and 192,567 misdemeanor arrests. Rankin said that, for all the faults he finds with the police department, that pulling back from aggressive, sometimes quota-driven policing likely correlates with an overall decline in police abuse.
“If you look at the number of arrests in a given year, some portion of those arrests are bad arrests,” he said. “So if the number has gone down, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the number of bad arrests has gone down.”
Given the notion that police misconduct claims have a long half-life before hitting the city’s taxpayer-filled pocketbook, there is one number that should give city officials pause: CCRB complaints are down, but the number of substantiated complaints rose substantially in 2015 has gone up, from 315 substantiated complaints in 2014, to 531 last year.
In other words, Rankin does not seem to be in danger of going out of business.
The Mayor’s Office, NYPD, and Law Department did not respond to requests for comment.