The spread of smartphone cameras has turned police-civilian confrontations into fodder for popular analysis, but society remains reluctant to send police officers to prison for killing people. For the grieving families of the victims, civil lawsuits have proven far more likely to produce results, reports the Washington Post. The system dispenses uneven justice. As part of a year-long investigation of fatal shootings by police, the Post examined the cases of 59 officers who were charged over the past decade for fatally shooting someone while on duty, allegedly crossing the line between enforcing the law and breaking it. In criminal court, 11 of the officers were convicted and served time. When 46 families of those shot and killed by police sought justice in the civil system, 32 received monetary awards. Settlements ranged from $7,500 to $8.5 million. The median settlement was $1.2 million. Seven families have not filed suit. When officers were criminally convicted, families won settlements in all but one case. When the officers were acquitted or had criminal charges dismissed, families were just as likely to win civil settlements.
The review found that families collected more money if they settled before the criminal cases were resolved. When families accepted settlements before criminal charges were resolved, they received a median award of $2.2 million. When the settlement came after criminal proceedings ended, the families received $500,000. Most of the settlements are between families and the officers' employer. Going after the officer rarely pays off. Many lawyers don't bother to sue the officer who pulled the trigger. As civil servants, they tend to have few assets. And if you don't sue them, “you prevent the officer and the officer's wife from making an emotional appeal to the jury,” said Michael Napier, a lawyer in Phoenix who for four decades has represented police officers. Suits are typically filed against the city or county or state that employed the officer, usually under a federal civil rights statute first enacted in 1871 to combat the Ku Klux Klan. Winning such lawsuits is difficult. The laws strongly favor police, requiring families to prove that officers acted “unreasonably” or that their departments acted with “deliberate indifference.”