The city of Ferguson, Missouri was hit with a lawsuit Thursday by people who say officers violated their civil rights during the demonstrations against the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The $40 million federal lawsuit is sure to be the first of many addressing the police treatment of protesters and journalists in the aftermath of the shooting. The weeks of misconduct and mismanagement by Ferguson police are turning out to be expensive for city and county taxpayers.
The six Ferguson plaintiffs say police officers treated them “as if they were war combatants,” using tactics like beating, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and stun grenades, while the plaintiffs were peacefully protesting, sitting in a McDonalds, and in one case walking down the street to visit relatives. The suit targets Ferguson, St. Louis County, both jurisdictions’ police chiefs, and the individual officers.
It’s hard to imagine how a small, low-income city like Ferguson can scrounge up anything close to $40 million should they end up settling the suit. The sum dwarfs the city’s total revenues for the fiscal year. The lawsuit is less damaging for the larger and wealthier St. Louis County, but as other complaints over the police’s behavior pile on, litigation will inevitably take a toll on the budget. On top of the cost to defend and settle the lawsuits, St. Louis County has already spent at least $1 million on police overtime in Ferguson and is setting aside another million to help residents who were affected by the chaos.
Ferguson’s predicament is not so different from other cities across the country that foot the bill for their police department’s misdeeds. A study recently published in the NYU Law Review found that individual cops almost never have to pay for their misconduct. Examining data from 81 police departments, the study found that “governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”
In total, the police departments that provided data cost their governments $730 million between 2006 and 2011. New York City, where the nation’s largest police department has become notorious for its abuses, paid out nearly $350 million in civil rights damages in this time period. The police officers at fault contributed a total of $114,000 to those settlements. In the smaller jurisdictions, the study found that officers contributed nothing toward the settlements — even when they had been criminally prosecuted, fired, or disciplined in some way.
What’s more, these cases hardly even affect the police department’s budget. The study noted that settlements usually come out of the city’s general fund or an insurer, while police budgets stay relatively stable. Many municipal governments don’t keep comprehensive records of lawsuits against police, or track what kinds of abuses and which officers show up in complaints.
Individual officers are rarely held accountable for their abuses, either by the police department or in court. Prosecutors often decline to bring criminal charges against officers with whom they work every day. Internally, police departments rarely investigate complaints of misconduct, let alone punish the accused officers.
Because cities insulate police officers and departments from the financial consequences for their actions, police on the street have little incentive to avoid unnecessary force, and their departments may not feel the need to crack down on repeat offenders. And so the bill for taxpayers keeps growing.