People hold placards after the verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, found guilty of the death of George Floyd, in front of Hennepin County Government Center, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 20, 2021.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
There’s the human cost of police misconduct.
Unarmed Black Americans are killed by police officers with appalling frequency. For young Black men, police violence is one of the leading causes of death.
A year ago, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for more than 9 minutes, murdering him. Throughout the course of the Chauvin trial, at least 64 people died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide. More than half of them were Black or Latino.
There’s also the social cost of police misconduct.
Many Black Americans feel fear when they see a police officer. Black parents have to have “The Talk” with their children because of that fear. Don’t make sudden movements. Keep your hands at 10 and 2. Say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am.” If you reach for something—do it slowly, but not before telling the police officer what you’re reaching for and asking him or her if it’s OK.
Both the human and social costs of police misconduct are inhumane and incalculable.
But there’s another type of cost as well: the economic cost of police misconduct. Notably, police officers and police departments don’t bear the brunt of this cost—taxpayers do.
Every year, taxpayers in cities and counties across the country pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits filed in response to police misconduct, lawsuits that are often settled in secret by municipalities to quietly bury criticism and controversy. In many cases, the costliest of these lawsuits are those involving civil rights violations (e.g. excessive use of force) that result in the physical injury or death of residents.
News organizations and national non-profits have created databases over the years that track police misconduct, but they are usually only able to track allegations, not cost. It’s time we had a national database that tracks both. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. We need to measure the problem as much as possible, so we can manage it in a way that helps save lives—the most important goal—and taxpayer dollars.
Our legislation—The Cost of Police Misconduct Act (H.R. 1481 and S. 540)—would create such a database by requiring federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to report to the Department of Justice the amount they spend annually on police misconduct judgments and settlements (including court fees) as well as the number and type of police misconduct allegations they receive.
Typically, taxpayers pay for police misconduct judgments and settlements in one of three ways. If their municipality uses liability insurance (typical of smaller municipalities), they pay for them indirectly in the form of premiums. If their municipality uses money from a general or dedicated fund (typical of larger municipalities), then they pay for them directly. The same goes if their municipality issues a bond.
Bonds are particularly common for large judgments or settlements that exceed insurer liabilities or the capacity of general or dedicated funds and often result in taxpayers paying nearly double because the city or county must pay fees to financial institutions and interest to investors. One recent study found that from 2008-2017, taxpayers in Chicago, IL (limited to 2010-2017); Cleveland, OH; Lake County, IN; Los Angeles, CA; and Milwaukee, WI, paid an estimated combined total of $1.73 billion in bonds and interest payments for police misconduct.
The money taxpayers spend on police misconduct has the potential to defund other municipal services, including those proven to prevent crime. In 1983, South Tucson, AZ, went bankrupt after a police misconduct settlement.
In 2017, New Haven, CT, had to issue bonds for a bridge after using funds for that bridge to pay for a police misconduct settlement.
In Minneapolis, taxpayers paid $27 million to settle Floyd’s murder with his family, one of the largest settlements for police misconduct ever. Because the payout was so large, Minneapolis had to use a combination of its general fund and self-insurance fund to cover the cost, the latter of which has “has been pushed to the brink in recent years” because of police misconduct, the Washington Post reported. The Minneapolis budget for this year allocates just about the same amount for health services ($28 million) as it does for this settlement.
In September of last year, a billboard was installed in Times Square across from a New York Police Department (NYPD) station. The billboard read: “Hey NYPD. It’s us. NYC residents. The ones who pay your salary. We paid $300 million to settle your lawsuits. You paid nothing. We need to talk.”
The “talk” that taxpayers in NYC are having with the NYPD about how the department will reform to avoid costly misconduct is a talk that taxpayers in cities and counties across the country need to have with their police departments.
They can’t have this talk if they don’t have the data. Our bill would ensure they do.
Don Beyer, a Democrat, represents the 8th Congressional District of Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.
Tim Kaine, a Democrat, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate. As a former civil rights attorney, mayor and governor, Sen. Kaine has a long track record supporting community policing efforts.