In case after case, a Chicago Tribune analysis of court records found, a state law that requires police officers to pay punitive damages in civil lawsuits is routinely undercut by negotiations absolving them of the penalties. Of the nearly $1.1 million in punitive damages awarded in police misconduct verdicts the city has paid to resolve since 2009, the Tribune found that Chicago police officers were ultimately responsible for nearly $285,000. Legal experts say that undermines the law’s intent, which is not only to punish individual officers but also to deter their peers from engaging in similar misconduct.
For officers, the fact that some of the awards do stand shows that they can be exposed financially. The fear of having to pay, they say, can have a crippling effect on their willingness to do police work. City lawyers say that they are fulfilling their ethical and legal obligation to defend police in lawsuits related to their work. “Our job is not to seek to punish the officers,” said Liza Franklin, a lawyer for the city. “Our job is to do the best thing we can for our clients.” Even when officers are in jail or have been fired for misconduct, the city’s lawyers have continued to appeal the court penalties. The findings come after a U.S. Justice Department report that found Chicago’s Law Department has at times provides legal cover for a flawed police department. The department has been sanctioned eight times under Mayor Rahm Emanuel for withholding possible evidence in police misconduct lawsuits.