When people get injured during law enforcement, it is unjust and expensive on many levels.
With so much focus recently on issues of fair and just policing practices, one aspect of the discussion that has received less attention is the financial burden that bad policing has on communities. According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2014 $248.7 million was paid out by the ten cities with the biggest police departments for police-misconduct cases, in the form of settlements and court judgements. New York City alone paid nearly that much in 2019: a whopping $220 million in settlement and judgement payouts.
What these numbers suggest is that fair policing is not just a justice issue, but also a fiscal issue. Police have an extraordinarily difficult job, and they need the proper resources to be able to do their jobs well. If a substantial chunk of a municipality’s police funds is taken up by settling lawsuits against police officers who have injured people using excessive force, that takes resources away from good policing. Imagine how much better policing could be if that funding were channeled into training, community outreach, and other programs that would make our communities safer and more harmonious.
Many times citizens have no idea how much bad policing is costing taxpayers, because the terms of settlements are often kept under wraps. Sometimes we do see these cases make headlines; for example, a few of the high-profile cases we’ve seen in Virginia in recent years include a $12 million lawsuit filed by a Lynchburg man who was shot and badly injured by police in his own home, and a $15 million wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Virginia Beach police. But it is important to note that these cases are often vigorously contested in court, mostly on grounds of sovereign immunity and/or qualified immunity. Certainly there have been many other misconduct lawsuits that have not made the front page, but that have cost Virginia taxpayers from Charlottesville to Leesburg to Midlothian far more than is commonly recognized.
And police misconduct lawsuits don’t only happen when someone experiences the kinds of horrific excessive-force situations that we have been made acutely aware of in our country in recent years — like the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Police misconduct that can lead to a lawsuit can also include events like false arrest and imprisonment, evidence tampering, sexual misconduct, discrimination, and harassment. We recently handled a case that involved negligent medical care of a prisoner that resulted in his death.
Every attorney takes an oath to uphold equal treatment under the law, and here at Burnett & Williams we take that commitment very seriously. Much of our work is focused on leveling the playing field between victims and insurance companies who are using their power to minimize payouts. In America, there should only be one legal system for all — and that is a principle to which all good attorneys and law enforcement officers should be committed.