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Shielded from Justice: The High Cost of Living in a Police State

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From Police state
Police state
(image by Tony Webster)

Who pays the price for the police shootings that leave unarmed citizens dead or injured, for the SWAT team raids that leave doors splintered, homes trashed, pets murdered, and family members traumatized and injured, if not dead?

I'm not just talking about the price that must be paid in hard-earned dollars, whether by taxpayers or the victims, in attempting to restore what was vandalized and broken by police. It's also the things that can't be so easily calculated to a decimal point: the broken bones that will never quite heal right, the children's nightmares, the broken family heirlooms, the loss of faith in a system that was supposed to serve and protect you, the grief for loved ones whose lives were cut short.

This is the price of living in a police state. Try to tally the pain, loss and medical bills of those in cities and towns across the nation who are reeling from the blows inflicted by the government's standing armies, and you will find yourself reeling. For many of these individuals, there can never be any amount of reparation sufficient to make up for the lives lost or shattered.

As for those who do get "paid back," at least in monetary terms for their heartache and loss, it's the taxpayers who are footing the bill to the tune of millions of dollars. Incredibly, these cases hardly impact the police department's budget.

For example, Baltimore taxpayers have paid roughly $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits stemming from police abuses, with an additional $5.8 million going towards legal fees. That's money that could have been spent on a state-of-the-art recreation center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds.

New York taxpayers have shelled out almost $1,130 per year per police officer (there are 34,500 officers in the NYPD) to address charges of misconduct. That translates to $38 million every year just to clean up after these so-called public servants. Over a 10-year-period, Oakland, Calif., taxpayers were made to cough up more than $57 million in order to settle accounts with alleged victims of police abuse.

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Chicago taxpayers were asked to pay out nearly $33 million on one day alone to victims of police misconduct, with one person slated to receive $22.5 million, potentially the largest single amount settled on any one victim. The City has paid more than half a billion dollars to victims over the course of a decade. The Chicago City Council actually had to borrow $100 million just to pay off lawsuits arising over police misconduct in 2013.

That's just a small sampling of the most egregious payouts, but just about every community feels the pinch when it comes to compensating victims who have been subjected to deadly or excessive force by police. The ones who rarely ever feel the pinch are the officers accused or convicted of wrongdoing, "even if they are disciplined or terminated by their department, criminally prosecuted, or even imprisoned."

Indeed, 99.8% of the monies paid in settlements and judgments in police misconduct cases never come out of the officers' own pockets. Moreover, these officers rarely ever have to pay for their own legal defense. As law professor Joanna C. Schwartz notes, police officers are more likely to be struck by lightning than be made financially liable for their actions.

Schwartz references a case in which three Denver police officers chased and then beat a 16-year-old boy, stomping "on the boy's back while using a fence for leverage, breaking his ribs and causing him to suffer kidney damage and a lacerated liver." The cost to Denver taxpayers to settle the lawsuit: $885,000. The amount the officers contributed: 0.

Kathryn Johnston, 92 years old, was shot and killed during a SWAT team raid that went awry. Attempting to cover their backs, the officers planted marijuana in the house and falsely claimed Johnston's home was the site of a cocaine sale. The cost to Atlanta taxpayers to settle the lawsuit: $4.9 million. The amount the officers contributed: 0.

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Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, a police officer was convicted of raping a woman in his police car, in addition to sexually assaulting four other women and girls. The cost to the Albuquerque taxpayers to settle the lawsuit: $1,000,000. The amount the officer contributed: 0.

Taxpayers actually pay three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: "once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police 'defense' funds provided by the cities."

A large part of the problem can be chalked up to influential police unions and laws providing for qualified immunity, which invariably allow officers to walk away without paying a dime for their wrongdoing.

So what's the solution, if any, to a system so clearly rigged that it allows cops to wreak havoc with no fear of financial consequences?

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John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties has earned him numerous accolades and (more...)

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