by Mick Dumke
Last week a federal jury ordered the city of Chicago to pay $850,000 in damages to bartender Karolina Obrycka, blaming a police code of silence for her 2007 beating by off-duty cop Anthony Abbate. The jury also found that investigators all but shrugged off the attack until a video of it surfaced weeks later.
Almost as soon as the decision was announced, a debate was underway about the award. Some argued it seemed relatively low given the viciousness of the assault. City officials vowed to fight it, even though they've already devoted an estimated $5 million to the case. Abbate, though, joked about the cost of the verdict to the Sun-Times: "I think I got a Visa card in my wallet."
Yes, the whole thing is a real knee-slapper. Meanwhile, the taxpayers are left with the tab—again.
In case you were among those wondering: the Abbate case was the highest-profile police misconduct suit around here in some time, but the payout wasn't anywhere close to the most expensive. That dubious distinction goes to a class-action suit that alleged the systematic mistreatment of thousands of people in police custody. The city resolved it with a $12.8 million payout last year, records show.
Abbate's case wasn't even the most costly involving an individual. In 2010 the city paid about $6.2 million to Juan Johnson, part of a $16.4 million settlement for a 1991 wrongful murder conviction based on a police frame-up.
All told, there were at least 29 occasions from January 2009 to June of this year when the city had to pay more than $850,000 in a settlement or judgment stemming from police misconduct.
It adds up to a serious burden on taxpayers—a whole lot more than most of us can put on our Visa cards. Since 2005, the city's been on the hook for $289 million in police-related suits, an average of nearly $39 million a year.
Alderman Robert Fioretti, a former city attorney, says the police department needs to continue to ensure that officers, both rookies and veterans, are prepared for what they'll encounter on the street. "I think some of it—a lot of it—has to be about proper training, and constant retraining."
Even so, most cops aren't getting into trouble. The city now has about 12,000 sworn police. Only a fraction are implicated in misconduct. In fact, Angela Caputo of the Chicago Reporter found earlier this year that nearly a third of all lawsuits that result in city payments involve "repeaters"—cops who seem to get entangled in legal troubles over and over.
"Despite making up 1 percent of the police force, they accounted for more than a quarter—or $11.7 million—of all damage payments incurred from police misconduct lawsuits" between 2009 and 2011, Caputo reported. But because of contract protections and a spotty internal investigation process, "eight in 10 of the 'repeaters' remain on the job with few signs of discipline."
The city of Chicago has historically had higher legal bills than Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Dallas put together. But police problems aren't entirely to blame. The city also pays millions of dollars a year to get rid of lawsuits over people falling on public streets and sidewalks, traffic accidents caused by city vehicles, and property damaged by city workers or equipment, including cars messed up in the city pound.
The total tab: nearly $417 million in lawsuit payouts since 2005. That's almost $56 million a year.
On the upside, the numbers appear to be moving in the right direction. Annual payout totals have dropped every year since hitting an all-time high of almost $130 million in 2008. City officials say they've discouraged frivolous claims since announcing a new policy that favors fighting rather than settling . . . though some cops say they've simply stopped making as many arrests because they don't want to get sued.
On the downside, expenses keep climbing in other areas. Outside counsel—law firms handpicked by city officials without any kind of formal process—billed the city for $26 million in 2011, up 68 percent from just six years earlier. At the same time, the total budget for the city's law department keeps growing as well, from $31 million in 2005 to $35 million next year.
Of course, if you're one of the lawyers getting paid, maybe this isn't a downside.