Is Repeat Police Misconduct Defunding Our Cities?

If you have followed the litany of police abuse cases in the news over the last few years, and the subsequent settlements often in the millions of dollars, you might be wondering how much police misconduct is actually costing our cities.

A recent story in The Washington Post places the price tag at around $3.2 billion over the past decade for cities across the country. In these days of debate over the movement to “defund the police,” the irony is inescapable: the police may actually be defunding the cities in which they operate. But a closer look at the situation reveals facts even more insidious because half of the misconduct payouts, that’s $150 million annually, implicate officers whose violations had already cost their city a hefty settlement. Thus, a small minority of officers are racking up huge deficits for their cities, and taxpayers have to wonder why these repeat offenders are kept on the force.

The Washington Post story opens with the tale of Officer Lynn Christopher Moore, who in 2014 filed for a search warrant, then led a team of officers to ransack the wrong Detroit home. Fortunately, there was no violence and no physical injuries, but the city still had to settle a civil rights lawsuit for $87.5K. A Washington Post investigation found that between 2010 and 2020, Moore’s police work had produced 10 such settlements, totaling “more than $665,000 to individuals who alleged the officer used excessive force, made an illegal arrest or wrongfully searched a home.”

Here are a few of the salient points from The Washington Post’s study of “40,000 payments at 25 of the nation’s largest police and sheriff’s departments” made in the past decade and totaling more than $3.2 billion:

  • The 25 departments surveyed employed more than 103,000 officers in 2020
  • More than 7,600 officers had more than once been accused of misconduct leading to payouts of more than $1,000.
  • More than 1,200 officers had been the subject of at least five payments.
  • More than 200 officers had 10 or more payment incidents.

A quick crunching of the numbers reveals that:

  • 7.37 percent of officers employed are repeat offenders
  • 1.16 percent had been implicated in five or more settlements
  • 0.19 percent had been implicated in 10 or more settlements

The story names the worst offending departments as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles; those three cities “accounted for the bulk of the overall payments,” a total of more than $2.5 billion.

Defenders of the police will rightly point out that these are small minorities of the overall force. But the question for taxpayers has to be: Why are the serial offenders still employed? If seven percent of all officers cost $1.5 billion in settlements every year, not to mention the pain and suffering to very real human beings who file the complaints, why keep these officers on the payroll?

Defenders of the police naturally take a different view. They note that settlements of civil lawsuits don’t always reflect the accuracy of the charges, but the cost of litigating. For none of these settled cases has there been a finding of guilt or innocence.

Gerald Cofield, a retired Boston police officer, who was named in three lawsuits that totaled about $306K in payments told The Washington Post “he wished the city had fought the claims instead of settling because he believed city attorneys would have won, and his name and reputation would have been cleared.”

Police advocates are willing to chalk up the losses as the cost of policing in a litigious society. But taxpayers have whether policing wouldn’t be more cost-effective, not to mention just and humane, if more scrutiny were given to cops who rack up misconduct complaints.