For governments, lawsuits come with the territory. In recent years, the amount that cities are shelling out for police misconduct lawsuits has become not just a criminal justice issue but a financial one as well, Governing reports. For big cities, the costs are alarming. In just the first eight weeks of this year, Chicago paid $20 million in police misconduct lawsuits. That’s outpacing the $47 million a year average over six years. New York City pays by far the most. In 2017, it doled out a record $302 million for police misconduct lawsuits. For small cities, the financial impact can be bigger. Most small governments have liability insurance to help them cover the costs of lawsuits. Costs for police misconduct can still place huge strains on budgets and can lead to law enforcement agencies being disbanded.
In Lakewood, Wa., a jury returned a $15 million verdict for the death of Leonard Thomas, who was unarmed when a police sniper shot him. While Lakewood’s insurance is expected to cover part of that payout, the city still must spend $6.5 million on punitive damages, equivalent to 18 percent of the city’s annual spending. When misconduct lawsuits mount, insurance companies can withdraw coverage. Without insurance, a single claim against a police department has the potential to bankrupt a small municipality. Cities in California, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee have in recent years opted to disband their police departments after losing coverage. Police misconduct lawsuits are an overlooked area of taxpayer spending and management, says David Eichenthal of the PFM Group’s Center for Safety & Justice Finance. Ron Serpas, New Orleans’ former police chief and a consultant with PFM, says training and monitoring of new hires can make a big difference. “You see numerous times that poor decision in hiring or succession planning results in multimillion-dollar lawsuits in cities.”