Police Reform and Escalating Misconduct Settlements

A crucial element of the police reform discourse is the rising cost of police misconduct settlements and the impact they have on municipal budgets. Elected and agency officials must contend with these costs though taxpayers in most instances are subsidizing the funding used in settlements. There is ample reason for law enforcement personnel, lawmakers, and taxpayers to all be keenly interested in the cost of these settlements. What do misconduct settlements look like? What is being done to mitigate the costs of misconduct settlements? These are questions this article endeavors to answer.

Misconduct Settlements: A Nationwide Concern

Even tracking the overall costs of police misconduct settlements has proven a significant challenge for researchers. There is currently no national reporting database and municipalities’ approach to record-keeping can vary widely. On a national level, the data just doesn’t exist to present a broader picture of how much misconduct settlements cost taxpayers. In an effort to address this lack of data, in March of 2021, the Cost of Police Misconduct Act was introduced into Congress, which seeks to compel reporting to federal authorities. Whether or not this bill will be passed into law is presently unclear, but it does represent one of the most high-profile efforts to explicitly tie the costs of settlements with the pushes for reform.

Despite the lack of specific data, it is well-understood that the costs of misconduct settlements are quite substantial and create strain on city budgets. In a recent survey of 31 of the 50 cities with the highest police-to-civilian ratios in the country, available data shows settlements cost these municipalities more than $3 billion over the last decade. Though the dataset is incomplete, it illustrates the substantial figures municipalities are contending with in settling misconduct allegations. Until recently, these costs were not typically figured into municipal budgets for policing and related costs.

City Budgets Misconduct SettlementsFurther complicating matters is how municipalities pay for misconduct settlements. In general, many small to medium-sized cities carry some form of liability insurance or risk-pool while the largest cities are either self-insured or will issue bonds to cover settlements and their related costs. Both approaches have their drawbacks. Bonds accumulate interest and servicing fees while insurance typically is funded via property taxes or other public user fees. In either model, it is once again taxpayers that ultimately bear the cost.

These settlement costs appear to be trending upwards too. In a survey of ten cities, the Wall Street Journal found misconduct settlement amounts rose from $1 billion between 2010 and 2014 to $1.6 billion from 2015 to 2019. There is no one reason for this rise but it is generally thought that things like increasing public pressure in favor of reform efforts and the widespread use of smart phone cameras have contributed to this rise. Additionally, some agencies and municipal governments look towards a settlement as a way to avoid a drawn out and expensive court battle.

Agencies Respond

Law enforcement leaders, elected officials, and taxpayers all have an obvious interest in controlling misconduct settlement costs. These unplanned expenses can significantly impact municipal budgets and can force unexpected reallocation of funds. Agencies and municipal governments are employing a number of different methods to control these costs. Here are some of the most common and effective examples:

  • Additional training is a strategy agencies and municipalities are using to reduce the likelihood of an adverse event leading to a settlement. Training requirements are frequently a component of new reform legislation being passed at the state level. De-escalation training and coursework related to identifying and responding to mental health crises are becoming more prevalent as are new standards in use-of-force training. Effectively managing and tracking officer training is seen as a proactive tool aimed at preventing law enforcement encounters that end up in settlements.
  • In recent years, the companies that insure small to medium municipalities are responding to the growing cost of settlements by exerting more control over agencies’ operations. This insurance risk management oversight takes on many forms such as policy audits, use-of-force simulators, and even ride-alongs to observe officer behavior. In some cases, insurers can even influence staffing decisions. Other municipalities participate in risk pools in which they “share” risk. The Association of Government Risk Pools connects member cities and facilitates collaboration while providing best standards and education.
  • Improvements to data collection are furthering policymakers’ and agency leadership’s ability to base decisions on rigorous analysis of data. This encompasses everything from body-worn cameras and audio recording devices to Internal Affairs and Use-of-Force metrics that are tracked and monitored via software. With more comprehensive and smarter data collection, policymakers and agency heads can be more confident in their decision-making, knowing it is based on a holistic view of performance and personnel data.
  • Early Intervention Systems (EIS), are software suites designed to help agency leaders monitor officer behavior and, ideally, intervene before any issues arise. Benchmark Analytics’ First Sign® Early Intervention System is preventative by design and more sophisticated than other, trigger or threshold-based systems, allowing leaders to identify off-track officer behavior before it rises to a level of seriousness that could involve an out-of-policy incident.
  • Once an EIS has alerted an agency’s leadership to the potential for performance issues, it is up to them to implement corrective measures to get that officer back on track. This often involves additional support like further training and mentorship. Benchmark’s Case Action Response Engine® (C.A.R.E.) helps track not only that assigned interventions are being completed but that officer performance is in fact on a path to improvement.

Elected officials, taxpayers, and agency leaders all have a vested interest in seeing the costs of misconduct settlements minimized. Data collection and analysis pertaining to officer performance are vital parts of the conversation around reducing the overall costs of misconduct settlements. By using new research-based software tools to better understand this wealth of data, agency leaders are empowering themselves to make the decisions necessary to ensure police funding is wisely spent on things like agency growth and training — and ultimately reducing the likelihood of problematic behavior that can potentially contribute to the rising cost of misconduct.