Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke (right) with his attorney Dan Herbert. The family of Laquan McDonald, a teen Van Dyke killed in 2014, received a $5 million settlement from the city.
As of this month, Chicago is out another $22 million in police misconduct payouts. First, the city settled one lawsuit
—brought by the family of Bettie Jones, an innocent bystander shot by police officer Robert Rialmo, who also killed Quintonio LeGrier in December 2015—for $16 million. A few days later, the City Council authorized a $6 million payment
for two other police misconduct settlements. A report
about the cost of police misconduct settlements and judgments recently published by the Action Center on Race & the Economy, a group that researches racial injustice in the financial industry, estimates that Chicago has paid out more than $800 million for police misconduct lawsuits since 2004. The price tag could climb to more than $1 billion dollars when the cost of using bonds
(aka borrowed money) to make these payments is factored in.
Currently it's taxpayers who are on the hook for all this. But do they have to be?
ACRE says no. Its report recommends making police officers take out liability insurance to cover them for misconduct lawsuits. "Officers whose behavior results in multiple misconduct claims will see their insurance premiums rise, creating a strong financial incentive for them to change their behavior," the report argues. Eventually, the insurance company would no longer want to cover officers who don't change their ways, and they'll thus become "unemployable." This would go a long way to to help change the culture of the whole department, ACRE argues. "Doctors have to take out malpractice insurance; so should police officers," the group says.
It's an idea that's gotten increased attention in the last few years—on both ends of the political spectrum. In 2016 community organizers in Minneapolis pushed for the city to make its officers take out liability insurance policies
—though their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful
. As the Atlantic reported last year
, the rollback of DOJ oversight of local law enforcement means insurance companies may be the only institutions left with any leverage over police departments. Earlier this year a Cato Institute analyst opined that liability insurance for cops would save so much money its base premiums could even be subsidized by taxpayers: "We can take that pot of taxpayer money currently being used to pay damage awards for misbehaving cops . . . and use it to give them an insurance allowance," Clark Neily wrote in the New York Post
. "When very-high-risk officers see premiums go up, they would have to pay the difference out of their own pockets."
Here's why this discussion is currently moot in Chicago: Since 1945, the state of Illinois has required the city to indemnify police officers
. This means that the city, not the officer, has to pay out settlements and judgments when cops are sued in their official capacity. Though the law says that cops are not supposed to be indemnified "where the injury results from the willful misconduct of the police officer," in practice, no matter how egregious the situation, the city has always covered misconduct settlements and judgments.
According to a 2014 study of police indemnification around the country
, this is reflective of national trends. Currently, the city is appealing a jury decision to award $44.7 million to Michael LaPorta
, arguing that taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for the actions of CPD officer Patrick Kelly, who shot and nearly killed LaPorta, his friend, after a night of drinking while off duty in 2010. (Kelly has a long history of misconduct on duty
as well, including shooting a man in the back and tasing a pregnant woman in the stomach. The city had already paid out more than a $1 million for his actions prior to the LaPorta verdict.)
Based on the high cost of police settlements, the city could have ample interest in lobbying Springfield for a change in the indemnification law. But even if that happened, there's the matter of the police union contract
. It has an indemnification clause
requiring the city to pay out judgments or settlements against officers.
And the city has shown no more willingness to fight the FOP on this clause than to fight for a change in state law. A 2016 City Council proposal
to require liability insurance for CPD officers fizzled out, too. Even though many officers make close to six-figure salaries (as well as overtime), several experts told the Reader
that premiums for liability insurance would likely be so onerous that they would discourage people from joining the force. Medical malpractice insurance premiums for doctors at highest risk of being sued—like surgeons and OB/GYNs—can be more than $100,000 per year.