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In Calling to Defund Police, Don’t Fixate on Costs of Police Settlements

Focusing on costs of police settlements won’t end brutality but could deprive victims of the reparations they deserve.

People stage a die in outside the Hennepin County Family Justice Center on September 11, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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When someone is harmed, disabled or killed by police, they, and their families, deserve compensation — for medical bills, lost time at work, emotional and physical trauma. In fact, as outlined in the Movement for Black Lives’s BREATHE Act, they deserve reparations — like those recently paid and made to survivors of torture by Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. If anything, police settlements should be larger than the amounts survivors and families often receive.

In recent years, and most recently in the context of campaigns to #DefundPolice, some organizers have focused on the amount paid out in settlements for police-perpetrated violence by municipalities as an indication of how expensive current police practices are. In some cases, they have demanded regular reporting and transparency around police misconduct settlements. In others, they have called for these settlements to come directly out of police budgets, as an incentive for departments to reduce the amount of violence they perpetrate. Some have called for settlements to come from liability insurance carried by individual officers instead of city coffers.

Each of these approaches stands to harm instead of help the people we are organizing with and on behalf of survivors of police violence and families of people killed by police. None of them will put an end to the violence that produces the need to compensate them in the first place.

It is also critical to note that the amounts currently budgeted for police misconduct settlements are based on past harm — so trying to cut this amount now will directly affect payments to people who have already suffered police violence, and will do nothing to prevent future harm.

There is no way to create financial incentives to stop police violence — because violence is inherent to policing. Highlighting the amount of police “misconduct” settlements, or shifting the responsibility for payment onto police departments, profit-driven private insurance companies or different governmental entities will not stop police from harming people — but it will likely harm people harmed by police. The most likely consequence of focusing attention on these payments is not that police violence will stop or slow down — because it is a feature, not a bug.

What these approaches will do is simply create stronger incentives to deny or reduce compensation to the people harmed by police violence — to avoid public scrutiny, to avoid cuts to departmental budgets, to avoid cutting into the bottom line.

If you are shocked by the amount of money spent on police settlements — and by the amount of violence and harm they represent — the best response is to work to decrease the power of police to enact that violence. In other words, the best way to reduce the amount of police violence settlements is to reduce and ultimately end policing itself, not the settlements paid to people harmed by policing.

Two years ago, the Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) released “Police Brutality Bonds: How Wall Street Profits from Police Violence,” which details the way municipalities use creative financing and deceptive accounting practices to hide the true cost of police brutality. It is in these municipalities’ interest to try and obscure how big the settlements are so that they are less likely to face demands to abolish the police entirely. And of course, whenever money is moving in U.S. capitalism, Wall Street takes its cut.

The ways in which banks profit from the cost of police violence was the primary focus of the report. However, the report placed a spotlight on the issue of police settlements more broadly, leading to a focus on the amount cities budget for such settlements as a target in campaigns for police accountability. The report itself referred to these settlements as a “burden” on communities that carried opportunity costs in terms of meeting other community needs, and demanded that this burden be shifted directly onto police departments and individual officers through liability insurance.

The recent nationwide uprisings in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, and their clarion call to #DefundPolice, have brought police budgets back into the spotlight. ACRE revisited and re-released the Police Brutality Bonds report in early June of this year with several critical amendments as a result of further political education and conversation with the community. The updated report no longer includes demands around individual officer liability insurance or further shifting of municipal accounting for the settlements.

In a statement released with the updated report, ACRE said,

We are clear that those demands fall far short of the world we envision and won’t result in any change to how police operate. Even worse, they may end up hurting victims unintentionally and should not be advocated for. Instead demands that challenge both the power of the police terrorizing communities and Wall Street’s financial power over communities are better focus areas for efforts to seek radical change that will seed the end to policing — and of extractive racial capitalism.

If campaigns to reduce the overall cost of police misconduct settlements are successful, people hurt or killed by police in the future may well be told that, because the public has protested police brutality settlements, the city is not in a position to settle their cases early on, and won’t compensate them unless ordered to by a court. This will force more police violence victims into years of costly, exhausting and often devastating litigation, which often results in compensation simply being denied. Many victims and their families — including people most vulnerable to police and other forms of violence, such as homeless and precariously housed people, people with low or no income, queer and trans people, disabled people and people who are criminalized or use controlled substances — will give up (or their lawyers will) before they have a day in court. Those who persist will face ongoing criminalizing narratives and sometimes direct threats of retaliation by police.

Demands that the cost of settlements come directly out of police department budgets suffer from the same flaws. Departments are deeply invested in continuing the practices that produce police violence — one need look no further than the New York City Police Department’s resistance at the highest levels to being told, again, that they can’t choke the life out of someone. As we have seen in campaigns to #DefundPolice, they are also deeply invested in keeping or increasing their budgets. So instead of ending police violence or taking the budget cut, they will just fight even harder against compensation for survivors and families of people killed by police than they already do, through smear campaigns, concealing evidence and dragging litigation out over years and years, leaving the people we want to protect with even less recourse.

Calls for police officers to carry individual liability insurance are also more likely to hurt survivors and families than to reduce police violence or “make officers pay.” First, as anyone who has ever had to fight for coverage of an injury, treatment or procedure knows all too well, private insurance companies routinely deny coverage for necessary treatment and claims for compensation, stonewalling claimants and forcing them to appeal denial after denial, dragging things out for years in the hopes that they will give up — as many do. They also frequently blame claimants for injuries they suffer, arguing that people “assumed the risk” of injury when they engage in particular activities. These companies engage in extensive surveillance and invasion of privacy in an effort to attribute the cause of any injuries to anything other than the entity they insure.

Where people harmed by police are criminalized, insurance companies will have even more fodder for these arguments. And, unlike governments, private insurance companies are solely accountable to their shareholders, not to the public, and therefore even less susceptible to public pressure than municipalities. Placing police violence victims and families of people killed by police at the mercy of private corporations does a deep disservice to those our movements must be most accountable to.

Secondly, police unions will likely successfully negotiate for cities to take on paying the cost of insurance premiums as a condition of employment or through wage increases, much as they have ensured that cities indemnify individual officers against individual damages assessed in lawsuits. So individual officers will continue to effectively be immune from paying damages or increased premiums.

Another possible avenue for shifting the cost of police violence onto individual officers is to eliminate indemnification, meaning that cities would no longer agree to pay judgments against individual officers. Now, even if a court orders an individual officer to pay damages, it is likely that the city that employs them will pay them under an indemnification agreement. Eliminating these agreements could force individual officers to pay for the harm they perpetrate. However, this approach is also likely to further harm survivors: When protected assets are taken out of the equation, there is often not enough left for an officer to pay a significant settlement, and more incentive for officers to move any unprotected assets into someone else’s name or declare bankruptcy before paying a settlement — particularly where they killed, maimed, raped or wrongfully convicted someone and compensation could run in the millions. So, eliminating indemnification to require officers to pay the full cost of the harm they do — often at the direction or with the tacit approval of their employer — would likely leave survivors and family members with settlements in name only, without a penny in their pockets.

The bottom line is that people hurt by police and families of people killed by police deserve reparations, including compensation. Police brutality settlements should not only be paid, they should be much higher, and should not require years of costly litigation. The terror that the police have brought onto people and their families through these acts cannot be undone. We should be removing barriers to compensation, healing, repair, restitution and systemic change, not adding to them through demands focused on police settlements.

There are many other places to increase transparency and cut police budgets, including by making visible and eliminating the high legal fees and costs that cities pay to defend against police brutality suits and engage in public relations smear campaigns against people harmed by police instead of immediately compensating individuals and families left behind. We can continue to make visible the ways in which Wall Street capitalizes on and profits from Black death and violation at the hands of police — much as it capitalized off of slavery by insuring the bodies of the enslaved. We can continue to lift up demands to defund, disarm and dismantle police departments and invest in the programs and infrastructure we need to produce genuine and lasting safety.

Our goal is to end the violence of policing and of the economic structures it defends. Let’s make sure our demands to #DefundPolice don’t inadvertently harm the people most affected by the issues we are fighting. Until police violence no longer exists, we owe reparations to people and communities that have been harmed. Period.

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