It’s true that most cases result in far smaller payouts, but they can add up to nearly a billion dollars a year for just one city. That’s eye-popping when you consider that state governments collectively spend roughly $10 billion on public assistance programs for the poor. When more money is spent consoling victims of brutality than providing assistance for low-income people, that’s both a fiscal and humanitarian crisis. And while police brutality cases are paid by cities, not states, these numbers place a dollar value on the tremendous breadth and depth of systemic police brutality.
Consider New York City. In 2012, taxpayers paid $152 million in claims involving the NYPD. That same year, Mayor Bloomberg voted to cut $175 million from childcare and afterschool programs, affecting 47,000 kids. Child programs not only provide relief to working families with maxed-out schedules, they are the best tools the city has to foster an equal society in the long term. Instead the city is spending money settling cases like the one last month involving Officer Eugene Donnelly, who drunkenly barged into a woman’s home one night and “beat the hell out of her.”…
Prosecutors have an extreme reluctance to pick up cases of police abuse. Federal prosecutors decline around 95 percent of such cases for two main reasons: juries are mostly conditioned to side with the police, and various impediments are in place to make prosecution more difficult (federal attorneys cannot argue that an officer acted recklessly or criminal negligence). On the state level, legal quirks like “transactional immunity” in New York make it enormously difficult for prosecutors to use incriminating testimony against officers.
Some say plaintiffs ask for too much money. Yet as crude a mechanism it is, the threat of litigation is one of the few shields citizens have against police abuse. The problem isn’t high settlement and the solution isn’t tort reform. The problem is police brutality and the solution is less of it. It’s an ugly cost that means so much more when states are spending less than ever on good, generative public services.