BGA PUBLIC EYE: City pays a price for police misconduct — $642 million since 2004

SHARE BGA PUBLIC EYE: City pays a price for police misconduct — $642 million since 2004

By Andrew Schroedter 

The city of Chicago has spent nearly $642 million dealing with police-misconduct legal claims over a 12-year period, according to data obtained from City Hall.

That includes $106 million in just the past two years.

In 2015, the city spent more than $40 million — including $5 million paid to the family of Laquan McDonald, who was killed by Officer Jason Van Dyke in a shooting caught on police dash-cam video — to cover misconduct-related settlements, judgments, legal fees and other costs.

That included roughly $28 million spent on damages, $10 million on outside legal expenses and $3 million on other costs, according to the data from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s law department.

Last year’s bill for police misconduct was the city’s lowest since 2007’s total of nearly $41 million.

It also marked a drop from the previous two years. In 2014, spending on police-misconduct cases amounted to $65 million. In 2013, the figure was $96 million —  the highest tally in 12 years.

But last year’s tab is likely to keep rising because of outstanding legal bills from 2015.

The city currently is facing more than 450 police-misconduct lawsuits.

There were 273 misconduct lawsuits filed in 2015, down from 289 the previous year, says Bill McCaffrey, a law department spokesman.

Told of the findings, Lou Reiter, a retired Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief who has testified as an expert witness in Chicago in police-misconduct lawsuits, says, “The culture of the agency has to change.

“It has to start at the bottom,” says Reiter. “You need a large cadre of officers who speak out and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

Dean Angelo, president of the Fraternal Order of Police chapter representing rank-and-file Chicago cops, says that while the $642 million payout might paint the police in a bad light, it’s not a reflection of the job that most officers do.

“Historically, the city has settled too easily in some cases,” says Angelo, in some cases even when an officer might not have been at fault. “It’s extremely frustrating to police officers. But it’s not their call.”

City officials previously have said they weren’t able to provide records showing what private attorneys were paid to defend the city and police officers in civil lawsuits alleging wrongful death, excessive force, false arrest and more.

But the city recently released data showing it spent more than $133 million from 2004 to 2015 on private attorneys in misconduct cases. The city also paid more than $446 million in damages and over $61 million in plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and other costs over the 12-year period, according to interviews and records.

McCaffrey says the city “continues to try and win non-meritorious cases.”

He also says the law department has “instituted a new program to promptly evaluate police-misconduct lawsuits . . .  and make a determination whether a case should be tried or settled.

“By promptly evaluating and moving to settle the cases that the city is likely to lose at trial before potential damages and attorneys’ fees increase, we estimate that, since 2011, this initiative has saved taxpayers at least $90 million,” he says.

The settlement last year with McDonald’s family was unusual in that the city paid it without a lawsuit being filed.

Under intense public pressure, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder in November on the same day the Emanuel administration made public a dash-cam video of the October 2014 shooting that showed McDonald being shot repeatedly as he walked away from officers.

The Justice Department was brought in to examine police department practices in the wake of public outrage over the video.

City Hall’s other 2015 payments in misconduct cases included:

• $8.5 million paid to the family of Aaron Harrison, an 18-year-old shot in the back and killed by a police officer in 2007 in North Lawndale. The city’s Independent Police Review Authority had found the officer was justified in his use of force.

• $1 million to the family of 21-year-old Joshua Madison Sr., fatally shot by an officer outside a South Side fast-food restaurant. IPRA found the 2010 shooting was justified. Madison’s family said the police had no cause to stop his vehicle or shoot the unarmed man when he tried to flee.

• $415,000 to a 22-year-old woman who accused two on-duty cops of raping her in 2011. Officers Paul Clavijo and Juan Vasquez each pleaded guilty to felony official misconduct and were sentenced to two years of probation. Both  resigned.

This was written by Andrew Schroedter of the Better Government Association.

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