(The Center Square) – Freedom of Information Act research conducted by The Center Square reveals Minnesota cities relied on taxpayers to foot police-settlement payouts ranging from $50,000 to more than $24 million between 2018 and 2020.
Police settlements compensate the public for violated rights and also avoid clogging the court system.
Still, over the past few decades, taxpayers are being left with more significant bills.
In Minneapolis, population 425,000, payouts from police damages in those two years totaled $24.3 million.
The most costly settlements were for police misconduct, 30 of which cost taxpayers 96% of the total cost, or $23.4 million.
The second-most common reason was 18 personal injury settlements costing $547,837, and four discrimination settlements costing $387,500.
St. Paul has a population of 304,547, but its police payouts during those two years totaled $1.1 million, plus another $266,000 when court and city attorney fees are added. The city paid out over $825,000 of total settlements in 2018.
The most common costly reason was for seven police misconduct settlements, which cost $899,967, including court fees. A single misconduct settlement cost $542,009, counting court fees, when a police dog attacked a woman taking out the trash.
Rochester, population 115,500, paid out $233,332 in settlements over those two years.
The most common settlement payout was for hitting vehicles or fire hydrants, 18 cases of which totaled $109,259. One arrest resulting in medical injury and surgery cost $100,000.
Duluth, population 86,000, said they only paid out one settlement of $50,000 for a police dog biting someone over the entire two years.
Police are fallible like all humans, but “bad cops” cost taxpayers millions of dollars and are rarely financially liable, University of California, Los Angeles Law Professor Joanna Schwartz wrote in the New York University Law Review.
After studying more than 81 law enforcement agencies in the nation, Schwartz found governments paid “approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”
But Schwartz isn’t against indemnification— she pointed out doctors, lawyers, and even businesses have insurance.
The goal of police settlements is to compensate people whose rights have been violated and deter future illegal conduct as well, Schwartz said.
While officers might be more likely to exceed constitutional bounds if they aren’t financially liable, they likely couldn’t afford to pay settlements independently.
“And so people whose rights have been violated would go uncompensated or under-compensated,” Schartz told The Center Square in a phone interview.
Schwartz pointed to one possible solution: Colorado lawmakers enacted a law in 2020 that requires cities to indemnify their officers but strip officers of qualified immunity for misconduct.
Suppose an officers’ employer determines the officer didn’t act reasonably or in good faith, she said. In that case, the Colorado indemnification law requires officers to contribute a portion to a settlement — up to 5% or $25,000, whichever is less. If they can’t afford it, the city must pick up the tab.
The majority of police officers cause few citizen complaints and lawsuits, according to a 2017 Dolan Consulting Group research brief, which cited one study finding only 5% of law enforcement officers are typically responsible for all of the sustained citizen complaints.
But it can be hard to fire those few “bad actor” officers, Schwartz said, because the internal investigations aren’t rigorous enough and because many cities have significant protections preventing police departments from firing bad cops built into union agreements.
Schwartz explained in Civil Rights Ecosystems that many factors impact police payouts that differ by city, including whether a person sues, whether they win, how much they recover, what the officer did, and how frequently police use force or exceed constitutional bounds.
In 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported the 10 cities in the nation with the largest police departments paid $248.7 million in 2014 in settlements and court judgments in police misconduct cases, a 48% increase from 2010.