In Chicago, the term “police brutality” is inextricably linked to former Cmdr. Jon Burge’s sadistic South Side homicide squad, which imposed extreme measures, including torture, to extract false confessions from dozens of suspects.

Burge’s “Midnight Crew” may be the most visible symbol of excessive force, but from a legal and fiscal standpoint they’re actually a relatively small part of a shockingly pervasive citywide problem uncovered by a Better Government Association investigation the Sun-Times published a week ago.

Brutality-related lawsuits have cost Chicago taxpayers $521 million over the last decade — that’s more than half a billion dollars — and Burge’s team accounts only for about 15 percent of that staggering figure.

In 2013 alone, the city paid out $84.6 million in settlements, judgments, legal fees and other expenses, more than triple the budgeted amount.

That’s a huge expenditure for a city with billions of dollars in unfunded pension obligations, and a budget crisis severe enough to force mental health clinic shutdowns, reduced library hours and higher fees for water, parking and other services.

We’re not suggesting victims of police brutality don’t deserve to be compensated — in some cases no amount of money can make up for ruined lives and lost loved ones — but at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel is contemplating painful tax and fee increases to deal with the pension crisis, the budget impact of police misconduct is huge.

The half-billion spent on these cases could have built five state-of-the-art high schools and more than 30 libraries, repaved 500 miles of arterial streets, or paid off a big chunk of the pension bill.

An Emanuel spokesman says the city is dealing with the problem of excessive force by expanding police training, and hoping to discourage lawsuits by taking more cases to trial instead of settling out of court.

Obviously, the mayor doesn’t want alleged victims to view City Hall as an ATM, but with nearly 500 misconduct-related cases still pending, the image is unavoidable, and more seven-figure payouts seem inevitable. 

Chicago, sadly, is beating the competition in a race it doesn’t want to win.

Los Angeles, which has a similar-sized police force, paid out $20 million in brutality-related legal claims last year, less than a quarter of Chicago’s outlay.

The last time Chicago spent less than that was $18.5 million in 2005.

Philadelphia, with a force half the size of Chicago’s, shelled out $9 million.

New York City’s last available payout figure is $152 million, almost double last year’s Chicago number, but its population and police force are three times as large.

Just to be clear, many brutality claims are fabricated, and most of Chicago’s 12,500 cops do good work and never face misconduct charges, despite the violence they confront on a daily basis in too many neighborhoods.

But criminal justice experts say the department has deep-seated problems, including a tendency to circle the wagons and protect officers who misbehave, a reluctance to punish serial brutalizers, and a “code of silence” that encourages cops not to report rogue colleagues.

Until that culture changes, experts say, bad behavior will continue, and so will super-sized payments to victims and lawyers.

Silence may be golden in some places.

But when it enables police misconduct, it’s intolerable, unaffordable and in desperate need of major reform.

 
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association