In January, after years of legal and political battles, the city agreed to pay $19.8 million to settle lawsuits by four men who were tortured by police under former commander Jon Burge. Signing off on the deal, aldermen condemned the abusive officers and hoped aloud that the settlements would let the police department start a new era. "I'm glad this is over," said the Fifth Ward's Leslie Hairston. "It's definitely a black eye on Chicago and on our history. But it's also an opportunity for us to get a chance to turn the page."
Maybe not. The Burge cases are only the most notorious of hundreds of police-related lawsuits the city has been forced to contend with this year alone. And though their cost to the city's reputation may not be as high, their financial impact is. By June the city already had paid out more than $62 million in 295 police-related lawsuits. Even if you deduct the torture cases, the city still spent more to close police suits in the first half of 2008 than it did for the entire year in 2007, 2006, or 2005.
And that's just the bill for the cops. Scores of suits have been filed against other city departments, and through just the first six months of the year Chicago was already on the hook for some $80 million in settlements and court judgments. That's far more than in any recent year in Chicago—up from about $34 million in 2005. And it doesn't even include the $12 million spent to settle hundreds of suits related to the Shakman consent decrees, a series of federal court orders banning patronage hiring and firing, or the $11 million it took to settle a dispute with Millennium Park contractors—both paid in 2008 after years of litigation. That's a total of more than $100 million to close lawsuits from January through June.
Chicago pays out more than almost every other large city in the country. From January 2005 through June 2008, we paid about $230 million in settlements and judgments; Los Angeles, which has a larger population, paid about $77 million. Houston, with about 77 percent of our population, paid about 6 percent of what we did, about $14 million. Only New York, with about three times as many residents as Chicago, paid more, but its city government has a wider scope—it oversees jail and hospital systems, for instance. In Chicago those are the county's responsibility.
Lawsuits involving the police account for about 44 percent of Chicago's settlements and judgments. In New York and LA they account for only about a quarter. And the amount Chicago is spending to close police-related lawsuits is increasing—from about $23 million for all of 2005 to more than $62 million for the first half of 2008.
The number of police-related cases involving payouts is higher than in most other large cities: Chicago settled or paid judgments in 1,846 such suits between January 2005 and June 2008, compared with 284 in LA, 85 in Phoenix, and 63 in Dallas.Yet Chicago actually pays out less money, on average, per police-related suit than other cities do—about $84,000 per, versus $152,000 in Los Angeles, $126,000 in Phoenix, or $158,000 in Dallas.
Experts offer several possible explanations for the rise in Chicago's police-related legal expenses. City officials point out that the city doesn't get to pick and choose the cases it takes on, and some are simply complicated and costly. By law, the city is obligated to defend any cop who's been sued for any act undertaken as part of his or her "official duties," even if the city has made its own decision to suspend or fire the officer. But critics argue that the city has a spotty record of policing its police—that problem officers aren't appropriately disciplined or weeded out—and that victims of misconduct are forced to sue when they can't find justice through other means. Of course, there are also critics of the critics, staunch defenders of the police who say greedy, opportunistic lawyers are the real problem.
Some attorneys say the issue is as much with the city's legal strategy as with anything happening on the police force: a few cases that could and should have been settled quickly instead ended up going to trial, where juries rendered more expensive judgments against the city. Or the case dragged on, costing the city more in legal fees—most of which aren't even included in the cost tallies above. Between the beginning of 2005 and April 21 of this year, the city paid more than $39 million to private law firms for work on a wide range of cases.
Jon Loevy, a partner with Loevy & Loevy, has successfully sued the city on behalf of several victims of alleged police misconduct. He blames both the police and the city for the expense. "I've had a front-row seat to a lot of this," he says, "and I can tell you that if the police department did a better job of policing itself, there would be a hell of a lot less lawsuits—and that's coming from someone who believes that most police officers are doing their jobs honestly and honorably.
"But at the Chicago Police Department, if you are someone inclined toward abuse, there is no system in place to rein that in—in fact, quite the opposite. They bury their head in the sand in the face of obvious patterns of abuse. They obviously think it's cheaper to defend the lawsuits. Plenty of the big payouts would have been avoided if the department took seriously the prior allegations of abuse.
"And my big thing is that when people come to our office to file a lawsuit it's usually because they're disgusted with the way the internal disciplinary body has treated their complaints. More than in other cities, Chicago whitewashes complaints of citizen abuse. We can debate whether that's the cause of lawsuit costs, but it is a fact.
"In hundreds of cases we've filed, only in a handful have there been any disciplinary action taken—and the city often paid out money, substantial money, despite the department saying the officers did nothing wrong. In fact, we've had 13 trials against the city in the last ten years, and each time the city said, 'This is a nuisance case,' and each time the police department found that the officer did nothing wrong, and 12 times the juries found against them in huge amounts. I can't be critical enough of that internal investigation process—they literally force people into court because they refuse to do anything other than assist the police officers.
"It also appears to the outsider that the city uses this process to pay back political favors. Cases they should settle, they instead pay thousands of dollars to outside counsel—sometimes millions—to keep the case going."
City law department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle says the city hires private-sector counsel for only three reasons: it needs expertise it doesn't have on its own staff, it needs to bring in an attorney outside the department to avoid a conflict of interest (such as when the case involves two city employees), or it doesn't have enough lawyers available. The outside attorneys have to agree to work for no more than $295 an hour—below the going rate in many instances—and must submit detailed bills that are monitored by a third-party receiver. Hoyle also notes that the law department adheres to a budget approved by the City Council.
Before he was elected alderman of the 21st Ward in 2003, Howard Brookins Jr. practiced law from several different vantage points: as a public defender, as an assistant state's attorney, and, in private practice, as counsel to numerous people claiming they'd been victims of police misconduct. He's been critical of the way the city investigates complaints against police since long before he was an alderman.
"I don't think the city has a strategy of throwing away money," he says. "I believe in my heart of hearts that there has just been that culture in the police department—there hasn't been that emphasis on training police how to stay out of trouble. I think you can do honest and aggressive police work without violating civil rights. A couple of things have come into play recently—police havebeen caught on videotape beating people a few times, so people on juries don't give them the benefit of the doubt like they used to. I would suspect that with some of the things [new police superintendent] Jody Weis has been doing, you'd see those numbers start coming down. It seems that he gets it."
"I think the alderman who made that statement is ignorant of the facts about training that officers go through," counters Mark Donahue, president of Chicago Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the city. He maintains that many suits against cops are unmerited and motivated by money. "It's a rigorous process that officers go through to understand how to protect citizens. The people of this city should be grateful that there are still people willing to meet those challenges on a daily basis. Unfortunately there are still incidents that shine brighter than the work done by the majority of officers every day."
Forty-ninth Ward alderman Joe Moore, who served as an assistant corporation counsel under Mayor Harold Washington, speculates that the city may be settling to avoid the added legal expense of prolonging cases. "When I started with the corporation counsel, the criticism was that the office never settled—it would even take loser cases to the brink," he says. "So there was a charge to us attorneys: 'If you have a loser case, don't be afraid to settle.' It's always a balance, so maybe it's possible they've gone overboard and maybe we've done too many settlements.
"I don't know if that's what's going on or if our cops are horribly trained and just doing all kinds of stuff. In the City Council, [the reaction is] more that 'This is terrible! We ought to train our officers better!'—the gnashing of the teeth."
Moore's old boss, Judson Miner, says it's not his impression that the city is settling just to get out of court quickly. Miner served as the city's corporation counsel from 1986 to 1989, under Washington and Eugene Sawyer; in the time since, as a partner with Miner, Barnhill & Galland, he's occasionally squared off against the city in court.
"As corporation counsel I often got criticized for not settling cases," he says. "Now they don't settle with me ever. My experience was that cases are all highly individual.... Just because there's some bad eggs doesn't cause you to settle more with other police officers—there are plenty of good police officers. There can't be a formula."
Joe Roddy has defended dozens of officers in disciplinary hearings before the Chicago Police Board and in court proceedings. In the late 1960s he was an assistant Cook County state's attorney. "There's probably some political ramifications—by settling a case they keep it out of the public eye so they don't have to deal with the publicity," he says. "It's such absolute unequivocal nonsense that nobody polices the department. The police board does a fine job. Internal affairs does a fine job, and now the Independent Police Review Authority does a fine job. You might not see [disciplined] policemen losing their jobs, but you certainly see them being forced to take extensive time off. It's an unbelievably hard job in our day and age.
"The difference is this—when I grew up in the 40s and 50s, if a police officer asked you to get out of the park, you couldn't get out fast enough. Now, people say, 'Fuck you'—pardon my Irish—and spit at them. The media puts the focus on [high-profile misconduct cases], and when they settle the case it does set the bar higher. People know that politically incorrect verbiage by a police officer, anything—the city will pay it off just to get rid of it."
Hoyle takes issue with this sort of talk. "There are usually three or four lawsuits [a year] where there are very high payouts," she says, "and the rest are paid out at fairly low levels. And you're only looking at cases where there was a payout.... Every year 30 to 40 percent of the lawsuits are resolved without any payout involved. It may look like you sue the city and automatically get a payout. And that's just not true." v
Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more on city politics, see our blog Clout City.
CITY POPULATION SETTLEMENTS AND JUDGMENTS, 2005-2008 POLICE TOTAL
NYC 8,274,527 $303,088,736.83 $1,457,503,286.52
LA 3,834,340 $43,028,427.47 $77,363,389.75
CHICAGO 2,836,658 $155,541,776.08 $229,701,643.75
Houston 2,208,180 $5,656,141.90 $14,192,541.52
Phoenix 1,552,259 $10,700,028.54 $18,733,497.11
Philly 1,449,634 $32,801,436.74 $98,073,529.54
Dallas 1,240,499 $9,942,876.38 $14,312,156.03
San Jose 939,899 $3,178,510.29 $7,026,176.56
Through the first half of 2008.
SOURCES: City governments, U.S. census. We couldn't acquire data from the other two top 10 American cities, San Antonio and San Diego.
2005 $22,704,681.00 $33,843,218.00
2006 $33,499,149.98 $48,015,705.53
2007 $37,146,953.10 $44,731,829.22
2008 $62,190,992.00 $103,110,891.00