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How Police Misconduct Affects Cities And Taxpayers Financially

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For months, protests over the police-involved killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others reinvigorated an intense debate over policing. Then, the mayor of Louisville, Ky., announced the city would pay $12 million to Breonna Taylor's family and institute a number of police reforms. That highlighted an aspect less discussed - the financial impact of police misconduct on cities and taxpayers. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Cities can face hundreds of lawsuits every year, charging among other things that police used excessive or deadly force or made a false arrest. Many times, details of settlements are hidden behind confidentiality agreements.

UCLA Law professor Joanna Schwartz studies how jurisdictions budget and pay for police legal expenses. She says although payouts can total in the millions, more often they are in the thousands-of-dollars range and with an important determining factor.

JOANNA SCHWARTZ: The number of cases filed and the number of dollars that are paid to resolve cases depends very much on where in the country you live.

CORLEY: Claims against big city police departments cost taxpayers about $300 million last year. One of the arguments in the ongoing protests over policing is that money for police could be better spent elsewhere. And the clash between protesters and police following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis means Minneapolis and other cities could face a myriad of legal costs.

In Chicago, several groups work to resolve cases of people who've been wrongfully convicted. Two years ago, a federal jury awarded $17 million to Jacques Rivera in what's considered one of the largest police misconduct settlements in the city's history.

JACQUES RIVERA: I'd say that I was kidnapped by the Chicago police wrongfully.

CORLEY: Fifty-five years old now, Rivera spent 21 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Framed, he says, by a now-retired Chicago gang crimes detective, Rivera is one of at least 20 who have been exonerated in cases where that detective led the investigations.

RIVERA: They set out to wrongfully convicted me for whatever reasons why - whether if it was just to calm the community that they got the perpetrator or whatever it may be, it's still not right because taxpayers have to pay for it. Victims' family has to relive this all over again once they think it's closed. And it's just painful for everybody.

CORLEY: Over the past decade, Chicago has paid about a half billion dollars for police misconduct. Rivera attorney Locke Bowman is the head of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School. He says in cases where misconduct is clear, cities often continue to fight against the allegations for months - sometimes years - and that could mean a hefty price tag for taxpayers.

LOCKE BOWMAN: The decision to settle a case like that early ends up saving money for attorney's fees and can result in a lower settlement before everybody gets dug in and the price of the case goes up.

CORLEY: Insurance policies and local budgets usually pay for judgments and claims. Jurisdictions hurting for cash may borrow - issuing bonds to spread out payments - add bank fees and interest to investors, and those costs pile up with taxpayers footing the bill for police misconduct. And as COVID-19 devastates budgets nationwide, that could be a more frequent scenario.

Chicago City Council finance committee chairman Scott Waguespack says the city is working to break that expensive pattern and concentrating on police reforms.

SCOTT WAGUESPACK: So that we're not just saying, OK, here's another settlement and good job negotiating it and move on, but really look at the deep-seated issues within the department to start rooting out those problems.

CORLEY: Activists argue tying police misconduct costs to police budgets could help prevent police wrongdoing as well as making police officers, especially repeat offenders, financially accountable. Currently, so-called qualified immunity rules shield officers from those costs. That's changed in Colorado. State Rep. Leslie Herod was the force behind the state's decision to drop its qualified immunity provision. A new law requires officers guilty of wrongdoing to pay up to $25,000.

LESLIE HEROD: And that if they were found to have acted in bad faith, violating someone's rights, possibly ending in death, that they actually have to be held personally responsible just like anyone else who violated their policies and their obligations at their workplace.

CORLEY: The law also allows officers to purchase liability insurance. Other jurisdictions looking to reduce police-related lawsuits may follow that hybrid model of splitting settlement costs between cities and individual officers. That just as victims or the families of people injured or killed by police misconduct continue to seek justice.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.