Police Abuse

It Costs a Lot of Money to Treat Its Citizens as Poorly as New York City Does

Police abuse, malpractice, property damage adds up to $735 million a year in the Big Apple


New York Police giving a citizen his money's worth.

New York City's dominion over its residents comes with quite the legal price tag this year—$735 million, to be exact. That's the cost the city will pay to settle claims and lawsuits against it for various sins, from police abuse to negligence to malpractice. The number is a record and also six times what Los Angeles pays on a per capita basis. Henry Goldman at Bloomberg News has crunched the city's legal budget numbers:

The cost of legal claims is forecast to rise to $815 million by 2016, more than the city pays to run the Parks and Recreation Department, according to budget documents. Among the incidents triggering payments are malpractice in public hospitals, police beatings, improper arrests, collisions with fire trucks and potholes causing accidents.

The increase in litigation payouts may put pressure on Mayor Michael Bloomberg as he weighs job and service cuts to close a $3.5 billion deficit in a $72 billion budget next year. The gap widened by $1 billion last month when a court struck down a plan to sell 2,000 new taxi medallions.

Personal injury claims make up $565 million of the settlements, but surprisingly, only $119 million is attributed to police misconduct or civil rights violations. Even so, it's still far higher than Los Angeles, which paid $54 million in total claims in 2011. (though the story notes that huge swaths of Los Angeles are under control of Los Angeles County, not the city, unlike New York). Payouts for claims of police misconduct in New York have increased 46 percent from 2006 to 2010.

Here's the police response:

Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne, the department's chief spokesman, says the Law Department is too quick to settle cases and that some lawyers manipulate the system.

"It's a cottage industry, suing the department," Browne said. Attorneys in the Law Department make an "economic calculation to settle these cases without taking into account the damage done to the reputation of the police from false or exaggerated claims."

Fay Leoussis, the Law Department's torts division chief, said the city has several issues to consider before agreeing to a settlement.

"In the vast number of cases, our police officers did the right thing, but from a risk-management point of view we want to settle meritorious claims, reviewing the venue, the sympathy factor, the injury," Leoussis said. "We're very concerned about our police officers' morale and we believe that what they do is on the right side of the law for the most part."

I'm assuming that "for the most part" is Leoussis' subtle concession to the tens of thousands of illegal arrests by New York police officers every year for marijuana possession. New York made pot possession a citable – not arrestable – offense 35 years ago, yet 2011 marked the second-highest number of marijuana-related arrests in a year in the city's history.

And illegal enforcement is not just a problem with marijuana:

In February, the city paid $15 million to settle a class- action suit filed in 2005 against the police on behalf of 22,000 New Yorkers charged with loitering from 1983 to 2011—in violation of a law declared unconstitutional in 1992.

The city was even cited for contempt in 2010 when it was discovered police were still making arrests under this law.

You'd think at some point typical police stubbornness and union protectionism would give way to the realization that these legal expenses threaten the city's ability to pay police salaries and benefits. But there's no sign of recognition. Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union – fighting the city's stop-and-frisk program – ends the piece with a suitable down note:

"Most people would be disappointed when they see how little reform takes place, even when large amounts get paid out," said Dunn. "Police officers who get sued usually don't even know the city has paid tens of thousands of dollars for their illegal act. So, how can there be deterrence?"