Police Misconduct Settlements Show No Signs of Waning

February 25, 2008

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Every year Chicago taxpayers foot the bill for millions of dollars to settle police misconduct cases. In its analysis, Chicago Public Radio found the city of Chicago paid out approximately $126 million from 2000 through October 2007. This is the result of hundreds of such cases brought each year. Chicago joins other major cities wrestling with the problem of police misconduct. But experts also say the legal climate here has changed; juries and judges are skeptical of police. And people who believe police officers violated them are emboldened to file a lawsuit. With the first of two reports, Chicago Public Radio's Natalie Moore has the story.

 

Jesse Barrera left his cousin's house on an unusually balmy night in October. He drove northbound on Homan Avenue and got blocked in traffic.

BARRERA: Then I started to get impatient after about 5-10 minutes, somewhere in that time frame, I started to beat my horn.

He says he didn't realize he was honking at plain-clothed police officers.

BARRERA: And when I did that, they came charging at me and pretty much dragged me out of my car and cuffed me and started beating me up and everything. I was just an innocent bystander waiting in traffic and dragged out of my car and got beaten down by three police officers.

Bloody and bruised, Barrera went to a police station to file a report. Then he got a lawyer and filed a lawsuit. Barrera just got word that the city has settled for $50,000.

The majority of police settlement cases aren't million-dollar whoppers—they're smaller cases like this one—and get settled for fifty or twenty or five thousand dollars. They're often labeled as “violation of civil rights.” It's a term that encompasses a variety of allegations such as illegal search and seizure; false arrest, malicious prosecution and extended detention. There's also excessive force. Sometimes there are hundreds of such cases each year.
HORWITZ: If you turn back the clock ten to fifteen years ago, you'll see there was very little reported relative to police misconduct because quite frankly, people wouldn't believe in it.

Blake Horwitz represents Barrera. The lawyer has made his lot in police misconduct cases and says he has won $19 million for clients in Chicago.

HORWITZ: Today's jury people may question, is this police officer telling the truth? Is the mere fact that he's a police officer, does that mean I'm going to believe him? He says today's judges are also less reticent to believe officers would engage in misconduct.

Over at the city of Chicago Law Department, Karen Seimetz says she has noticed more police misconduct cases coming to her office.

However…

SEIMETZ: One shouldn't suppose because a lawsuit's been settled that's because we believe somehow that the officer did something wrong. It may simply be a case that's a combination of factors. Not the least of which is the expense of taking a case to trial.

But she insists the settlements aren't a cause for alarm or concern given the high pressure situations officers face.

SEIMETZ: Again, the police department is our largest client because they have 13,000 employees who are out in the streets on a daily basis dealing with the public, in high pressure situations. Not the same as someone in Streets and Sans who's maybe going to get into an accident.

It's true that other big city police departments – such as New York – wrack up large settlement bills and chalk it up to “the cost of doing business.” But Chicago's rate of disciplining offending officers accused of misconduct is among the lowest in the country. 

A University of Chicago Law School study [pdf] found that between 2002 and 2004, civilians filed more than 10,000 complaints of excessive force, illegal searches, racial abuse and sexual abuse. Only 19 of those complaints led to a suspension of a week or more.

And that's why some activists are convinced lawsuits are the best way to fight back against brutality.

Ra Chaka is part of the Justice Center in a storefront Roseland building. The paralegal passes out leaflets here, in Englewood, Humboldt Park and other communities.

CHAKA: It was important because there's a lot of violence and a lot of stuff going on in this community and the police just occupy us. Every time you're driving down the street you the police got somebody up against the wall or up against the car.

The center's been open about five months. Chaka's helped several people weigh whether to file a lawsuit.

Taxpayers will be paying even more to settle police misconduct cases in the near future. Victims of police torture linked to the notorious former commander John Burge have yet to receive their million-dollar checks.

It's a situation that's raising questions about what law enforcement itself thinks about police misconduct and what can be done.

I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.