Do Big Settlements Deter Police Misconducct? Probably Not


The $6.4 million that Baltimore has agreed to pay the family of Freddie Gray to head off a potential wrongful death civil lawsuit is the latest example of a trend that is gaining momentum, reports the Christian Science Monitor. By one analysis, the settlement money paid out by the 10 American cities with the largest police forces increased by 48 percent from 2010 to 2014, to nearly $250 million. Data on the topic are patchy, and the circumstances of each payout are unique, but the sheer amount of money raises questions about whether the settlements are sending the right message to police departments.

While the purpose of a settlement is, first and foremost, to resolve a civil rights lawsuit that may be imminent or ongoing, it can also serve larger purposes – in particular, grabbing the attention of the police department and stimulating reform, experts say. Some police departments have implemented significant reforms in response to large settlements, but the recent trend suggests that message often might not be getting through. Do payouts deter police misconduct? “Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case. It doesn't seem to be a very effective tool for widespread reform,” says Kami Chavis-Simmons, a former assistant United States attorney who teaches at the Wake Forest University School of Law.

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