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Tracking Police Misconduct Settlements That Cost Cities Millions


A familiar cycle has been playing out in cities across the country. Police kill or hurt someone, often a person of color, in a manner that leads to public outcry. Some entity investigates, but no charges are brought. But behind closed doors, victims or victims' families reach a monetary settlement. Just this week, the city of Portland agreed to a $2 million settlement for the family of Quanice Hayes, a Black teenager whom police shot and killed more than four years ago. This and other high-profile settlements have cost cities billions of dollars over the past decade. But has this changed anything?

For the past eight months, FiveThirtyEight, the data analysis site, and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news group that focuses on criminal justice, have been trying to figure this out. They have been analyzing public records to see whether these settlements have changed how cities approach police conduct. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer at FiveThirtyEight. She led this reporting project, and she is with us now to tell us more. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, thanks so much for joining us.

AMELIA THOMSON-DEVEAUX: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you tracked settlements with police around the country. There are a number of ways to look at police conduct. And I was just wondering, what led you to focus on settlements, specifically? How did you arrive at that as a focus for your reporting?

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: Well, we became interested in police settlements last summer after the killing of George Floyd led to criminal charges. And we looked at data just basically showing how incredibly rare that is for officers to be criminally prosecuted. But we discovered as part of that reporting that civil lawsuits are a much more attainable form of justice and compensation for people who are the victims of police misconduct. And we wanted to know how much cities were paying out and if there had been any changes as a result of police misconduct and police violence really becoming a national issue over the past few years.

MARTIN: So give us some of the headlines. What are some of the things that you saw?

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: So, I mean, the first thing we saw is that cities are spending a tremendous amount of money, over $3 billion over the past 10 years. And it was a really massive amount of data that we were able to collect. And I should say that all of it is publicly available for download for anyone who wants to take a look at the raw data or look at how we processed it. But we really were surprised by the - frankly, the messiness of the data and how many cities just didn't seem to be tracking this in a way that was meaningful at all.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, I mean, you point out that there's just no uniformity in how cities keep track of the settlements. And you single out Cincinnati and Charleston to highlight this. Could you talk about that, what you saw in just comparing just those two cities and why that matters?

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: Right. So, you know, when you're looking at these settlements, it's really not enough. If you want to find out if, you know, police reforms are having any impact on, you know, whether a lot more people are suing, whether more money is going out to people, whether there's less misconduct, you have to know more than just the settlement amounts. You have to know things like what type of misconduct resulted in these settlements because a lot of the data we got back was just car crashes. And that's itself an ambiguous category because we don't know if a car crash was just a fender bender at a stop sign or if, you know, a police cruiser was chasing someone through a neighborhood and resulted in a crash, you know? We think about those pretty differently.

But in cities like Charleston and Cincinnati, they do have categories that seem meaningful, but they actually are not comparable at all. So you can take a category like civil rights. We would want to know if one city is spending more on civil rights violations than the other. In fact, Cincinnati, according to our data, was spending much more of its total paying out lawsuits related to civil rights violations than Charleston was.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in here to say that, for example, according to your data, in Cincinnati, civil rights cases made up 37% of the total. But in Charleston, S.C., they made up only 10% of the total. But what I think you're telling me is you don't know what that means.

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: Right, because when you dig deeper into that data, you see Charleston also has a bunch of other categories that could reasonably be called civil rights violations, like false arrest. And Cincinnati has a lot fewer categories to begin with. So it's totally possible that if you took the same incident, it could be categorized as a civil rights violation in Cincinnati and as false arrest in Charleston. And we don't know if that's what's happening because neither city had any definitions for their categories.

So it's not just that you can't compare across cities; we can't even be confident that someone who is entering data in one of these cities five years ago - again, hypothetically - looking at the same facts might have put different incidents, different lawsuits in different categories. So it makes it very difficult to even be confident in whether what we're looking at over time in a given city is actually a change.

MARTIN: So I guess the bottom line is you're just not sure. What you are sure is that a lot of money has been paid in these settlements across the country in a number of cities over a long period of time. But you just can't determine whether that's changing the conduct on the ground, which is, you know, that's - one of the arguments for punitive settlements is to say that this is supposed to change your behavior. And I think what you're saying is you just don't know.

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: We just don't know. And so, you know, it's not just a matter of wanting to reduce police misconduct. Although, of course, that is, you know, the kind of - the root cause and the goal here. It's also wanting to address a situation where taxpayers are essentially subsidizing violence and abuse by police. Cities want to reform this. That's great. But without the data, we have no way of figuring out if they're actually doing that.

MARTIN: Do you have any thoughts about this? I mean, over the course of reporting these stories as this issue has just become more and more a matter of public concern, one of the things that comes up over and over again is so local this all is and how things vary so much from place to place. I mean, you know, in some parts of the country, you know, police officers might be making $10 an hour and have a couple of weeks of training. In other parts of the country, the situation is really different.

I recognize that your job is to describe what is. But in the course of your reporting, did anything emerge as something that makes sense? Is there a role here for the government? Is there - does some logical step appear to you as a result of this reporting?

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: So one thing the federal government could do is make it a condition of receiving federal law enforcement funding for police departments to have to report this to the federal government. And then the federal government could make that data public. They can analyze that data. They could use that as a basis for policy. The other thing that could happen is that when the federal government enters into consent decrees with police departments, they could require this kind of reporting as well. And it still wouldn't be perfect, but it would be a lot better than what we have.

MARTIN: Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, thanks so much for talking with us.

THOMSON-DEVEAUX: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.