A UCLA Law Professor has found that, in cases of police brutality, damages rewarded in suits against the city of New York are almost entirely paid for by taxpayers, with just a fraction of the cost incurred by officers involved or the NYPD as a whole.
Joanna Schwartz, who has extensive experience studying and analyzing cases of misconduct among police nationwide, presented her findings in a paper she wrote recently for the New York University Law Review. In the paper, Schwartz determines that taxpayers “almost always satisfy both compensatory and punitive damages awards entered against their sworn servants.”
In the case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was killed after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold in an attempt to arrest him, the grand jury decision not to indict Pantaleo for Garner’s death has prompted the victim’s family to sue the city of New York for $75 million. Schwartz believes that Pantaleo may have to pay a very small portion of the damages, but it will ultimately be NYC taxpayers who foot the bill.
“I do imagine the officers will be indemnified,” Schwartz said. “If you look at big cases involving the NYPD that settled between 2006 and 2011, including suits relating to the shooting of Sean Bell, there was no contribution by involved officers. New York has required officers to contribute small amounts when officers have been found to be acting outside of policy.
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"I suppose this could happen in this case but feel fairly certain, given my research about indemnification, that the involved officers would, at most, be required to contribute a minuscule fraction of any amount collected by the family."
According to CityLab.com, research conducted by Schwartz from civil rights cases settled between 2006 and 2011 shows that of the 9,225 cases and $735 million total in damages awarded in large cities, “officers personally paid less than $171,300 of that total — or just .02 percent.” Data from cases in small and mid-sized cities show that of the $9.4 million in total damages rewarded during the time period, none of it was actually paid for by the NYPD or its officers.
A single instance in which a New York officer paid the full amount in a settlement involved a then-off-duty officer whose dog attacked someone. That officer paid $16,500.
Schwartz concludes her study by arguing that the system leans in favor of the defendant in cases of police misconduct.
“For several decades, the Supreme Court has crafted civil rights doctrines — including qualified immunity and limitations on municipal liability and punitive damages — based on unfounded assumptions, and many times has done so in ways that make it more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail. This Article rebuts one of those assumptions: that law enforcement officers are personally responsible for settlements and judgments entered against them.”