Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
According to press reports, the city paid about $70 million in settlement or jury awards in claims alleging improper police actions between 1994 and 1996.172 The New York City Law Department reports that police misconduct, described as assault/excessive force, assault and false arrest, shootings by police, and false arrests (as categorized by the city's Law Department), cost city taxpayers more than $44million for fiscal years 1994-95; this works out to an average of almost $2 million a month for police misconduct lawsuits alone.173 And it represents an increase over the three previous years, when the city reportedly paid a total of $48 million in these types of cases.174 In addition to an increase in amounts paid in recent years, the number of brutality claims has tripled in a decade, to 2,735 between June 1996 and June 1997, according to city Comptroller statistics.175
Between June 1996 and June 1997, the city settled 503 police misconduct cases, taking only twenty-four to court, where it won sixteen.176 Yet, as far as reforms are concerned, settlements provide little public information about incidents of police misconduct and there are few repercussions for an officer who is the subject of such a lawsuit, for which the city pays.
Payments come from the general city budget, not directly from the NYPD. As noted above, the Law Department states that, "...concerning notification procedures where a lawsuit alleges police misconduct, the Law Department does not have a formal procedure for notifying IAB or the CCRB of such lawsuits."177 Stated more bluntly by City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, "[T]here is a total and complete disconnect....there is a small percentage [of officers] who are habitually macho and violent and they have to deal with that."178 In approximately 90 percent of the lawsuits, according to press reports, the city's Law Department and the police department determine that the officer was acting within the scope of his or her duty,and the lawsuit is not recorded in the officer's personnel file.179 The city does not represent about 10 percent of officers named in lawsuits, who face disciplinary proceedings.
Lawyers bringing civil lawsuits against police officers told Human Rights Watch that they often do not recommend that their clients file a complaint with the IAB because the information provided is often used against the client. Officers themselves do not have to pay personally in civil lawsuits; the city almost always indemnifies the officer and pays. In the rare case in which the city has not covered the officer, the PBA usually has done so.
In 1984, the city agreed to pay into a police union "civil legal defense fund." It now pays $75 per year for each officer in the union, meaning that taxpayers may be charged three times for officers who commit abuses: for their legal defense, for their salaries, and for civil settlements or jury awards. When the police department fails to take appropriate disciplinary actions against these officers and repeat offenders, there is an additional cost in terms of public confidence. Juries in civil cases are increasingly willing to believe plaintiffs seeking damages (leading to settlements by the city and large awards when cases do go to trial); and, in separate criminal cases against civilians, the public is increasingly unwilling to believe the police. The true cost of poor accountability for violent police officers is far more than that of the settlements or awards provided to the alleged victims.
Because the police department is secretive regarding how it handles allegations of police misconduct, and the CCRB does not provide specific information about individual cases, the disclosure of information during civil trials in New York would be a large step toward accountability. Even though there is often no connection between disciplinary or prosecutorial action against the officer and the awards following civil trials, information that would otherwise by suppressed may reach the public domain through civil lawsuits. Still, civil suits are brought only in a minority of cases, and if they are settled before trial - as the vast majority are - little information is disclosed. Moreover, the civil suits filed represent just a portion of allegations of police misconduct made by individuals seeking legal representation, since many lawyers who represent victims in police misconduct suits are overwhelmed with requests for help and will only pursue the strongest cases involving the victim's hospitalization or death.
Two of the largest amounts paid during this period followed verdicts in June 1994, one costing $6.5 million (victim Gerard Papa) and another costing $1 million, after a verdict for plaintiff James Rampersant, Jr. who was involved in the sameincident.180 Papa and Rampersant, Jr. were reportedly shot at and beaten by police in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in March 1986. The police mistakenly believed the men to be suspected purse-snatchers, and after the attack charged the men with attempted murder, criminal mischief, resisting arrest and other offenses; the charges were later dropped. After the incident, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA) attorney reportedly advised the officers involved not to cooperate with investigators, and the officers apparently were never disciplined, despite costing the city at least $7.5 million.181
In another case demonstrating that large civil lawsuit payouts may not correspond to appropriate disciplinary or criminal actions against officers, Carlton Brown, a twenty-eight-year-old African-American was apprehended by officers for allegedly having a suspended license in August 1992. He was handcuffed and taken to the 63rd Precinct in Brooklyn, and he alleges the officers involved beat him and pushed him through a double-paned glass door, shattering it. After he went through the door, the officers kept his handcuffs on, despite his injuries, and added a charge of resisting arrest. Brown sustained spinal cord injuries, was hospitalized for more than three years, and was permanently paralyzed.182
In 1995, the city paid Brown what was then the largest pre-trial settlement amount in its history. Brown received $4.5 million in the settlement, but with added annuities, $16.6 million was to be paid.183 After public protests, the two officers were indicted on assault charges and placed on restrictive duty, but a judge acquitted them. According to press reports, the officers were never disciplined.184
172 Matthew Purdy, "What does it take to get arrested in New York City? Not much," New York Times, August 24, 1997. In April 1998, a jury awarded $76.4 million to a man who had been shot by police in 1998; he was paralyzed by the shooting. The city planned to appeal the ruling, and experts predicted the judgment would be reduced dramatically if paid. David Rohde, "$76 million is awarded to man shot by police and paralyzed," New York Times, April 9, 1998.
173 Figure does not include traffic accidents. Letter to Human Rights Watch from the Law Department's Corporation Counsel Michael Sarner, November 8, 1996.
175 Deborah Sontag, Dan Barry, "Using settlements to measure police abuse," New York Times, September 17, 1997.
176 Ibid. A litigator with the city's Law Department stated that settling a case does not mean the officer did anything wrong, but that the city feared a jury would find the plaintiff sympathetic.
177 Letter to Human Rights Watch from the Law Department's Corporation Counsel Michael Sarner, November 8, 1996.
178 Sontag, Barry, "Using settlements to measure police abuse," New York Times, September 17, 1997. Hevesi also recommends that the police department pay half of the settlement amounts.
180 Jim Dwyer, column, Daily News, October 10, 1996, and Amnesty International, "Police brutality," pp. 51-52.
182 Amnesty International, "Police brutality," pp. 17-18.
183 Sontag, Barry, "Using settlements," New York Times, September 17, 1997, Joseph P. Fried, "In a brutality case, a legal dream team and questions of overkill," New York Times, November 9, 1997, and information provided by the New York City Law Department to Human Rights Watch, dated November 8, 1996.
184 Sontag, Barry, "Using settlements," New York Times, September 17, 1997.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch