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Fullerton to Pay $4.9m to Family of Kelly Thomas

As longtime readers of this blog may remember, the Fullerton, California police violently beat Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally ill homeless man, who died from his injuries. The arrest was recorded, and Thomas could be heard calling for his father as the officers relentlessly beat him into a coma.

Kelly ThomasTwo officers were fired for the incident but ultimately acquitted of criminal charges in the case. As opening arguments were set to begin in the wrongful death suit, the City of Fullerton agreed to pay the Thomas family $4.9 million as a settlement.

Ron Thomas said at a news conference that while the city acknowledged no wrongdoing in the settlement, it was a clear indication to him of its liability and guilt in the death of his 37-year-old son Kelly Thomas. Thomas said he feels vindicated by the settlement.

It is not uncommon for municipalities to disavow any culpability in settlements like this. But lawsuits are important nonetheless because they bring some measure of closure to the families who do not find justice in the criminal courts and incentivize governments to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

On Tuesday, December 1, Cato will host “Policing in America,” an all-day conference dedicated to discussing the policies and impacts of law enforcement around the country. The event will be live-streamed on the Cato website.

The Donald Gates Case

From the Washington Post:

THE DISTRICT of Columbia’s agreement to pay $16.65 million to settle the federal civil rights lawsuit of a man who spent 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit should not be the end of this troubling case. That a jury found there to be egregious police misconduct demands rigorous review of other cases handled by the detectives involved, to ensure there haven’t been similar miscarriages of justice. Also needed is resolve by prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system to tackle the systemic issues that contribute to wrongful convictions.

Last week, Federal Judge Alex Kozinski was here at Cato to debate problems in our criminal justice system, including the problems that contribute to wrongful convictions.  That event can be viewed here.

New York Law Hides Police Misconduct

From New York Times editorial:

The uniquely restrictive New York State law that is used to conceal the disciplinary histories of police officers — even some who have committed crimes — reared its head again last week in misconduct proceedings against the officer who brutalized the retired tennis player James Blake during a mistaken arrest in Manhattan last month.

The public has the right to be kept informed of police misconduct cases, especially at a time of heightened concern over police brutality. But when the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board substantiated excessive force charges against James Frascatore, the officer who attacked Mr. Blake, it was allowed to release its findings to Mr. Blake’s lawyer but was barred from making them available to the public. Had Mr. Blake’s attorney not released the information, the public would still be in the dark.

The state law on officers’ histories is the only one of its kind in the nation. It was enacted in 1976 to prevent criminal defense lawyers from using freedom-of-information laws to gain access to personnel records for information to use against officers in trials.

The law says an officer’s personnel record cannot be publicly released or cited in court without a judge’s approval. But municipalities and courts have since broadened the definition of “personnel record” to shield almost any information.

For additional background, go here.

Worst of the Month — September

So for September we have chosen the Chicago Police Department, particularly, the officers who were responsible for arresting George Roberts.

CBS Chicago reports on a lawsuit filed by Roberts against the Chicago Police Department.  According to Roberts, he was falsely arrested and roughed up by police following a traffic stop.  Here’s the thing: Roberts investigates police misconduct for the Independent Police Review Authority.  And it was when the police discovered that fact that the abuse of power began.  Mysteriously, several police cameras on the scene were turned off:

It is against policy in both Chicago and Illinois for a police officer to turn off his dashboard camera, CBS Chicago reports.

Vehicles belonging to two other officers on the scene were equipped with audio recording devices, though no audio of the encounter was saved, according to the lawsuit.

Roberts said in the lawsuit, which was filed on Sept. 15, that the camera was shut off after officers realized he worked for the Independent Police Review Authority — or IPRA — the agency responsible for investigating police misconduct.

Roberts said he was initially stopped for a minor traffic violation, but was then pushed in the back by one of the officers and forced to the ground. He said in the lawsuit that an officer shouted, “Don’t make me [expletive] shoot you.”

But “when the (officers) turned off the dash camera, things got worse,” his attorneys write in the lawsuit.

Roberts, who was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police vehicle, complained that the handcuffs were too tight, according to the lawsuit. The 6-foot-3, 315 pound man says that, instead, it would have have been appropriate for officers to use multiple handcuffs strung together for someone of his size.

He says in the lawsuit that one of the officers responded to his complaints: “What are you going to tell me next, you can’t breathe?” — an apparent reference to Eric Garner, a New York City man who died in 2014 as a result of a police choke hold.

Roberts also says he was told “that’s your fault,” when he pointed out that his weight made the single set of handcuffs painful.

Read the whole thing.  Roberts was suspended from his job while charges were pending.  Following his acquittal, he returned to work.

WSJ: Police Misconduct Costs Soar

From the Wall Street Journal:

The cost of resolving police-misconduct cases has surged for big U.S. cities in recent years, even before the current wave of scrutiny faced by law-enforcement over tactics.

The 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million last year in settlements and court judgments in police-misconduct cases, up 48% from $168.3 million in 2010, according to data gathered by The Wall Street Journal through public-records requests.

Those cities collectively paid out $1.02 billion over those five years in such cases, which include alleged beatings, shootings and wrongful imprisonment. When claims related to car collisions, property damage and other police incidents are included, the total rose to more than $1.4 billion.

Boston Pays $36 Million to Settle Police Lawsuits

From the Boston Globe:

The City of Boston has spent more than $36 million to resolve 2,000 legal claims and lawsuits against the Boston Police Department over the past decade, with most of the money going for cases alleging wrongful convictions or police misconduct.

The bulk of the payouts, $31 million, went for 22 cases worth $100,000 or more, including nine awards for well over $1 million apiece, according to data provided by the mayor’s office in response to a public records request filed by the Globe….

Some of the biggest payouts in Boston went to the families of victims who died after encounters with police during celebrations of major sports victories in Boston over the years.

In one high-profile case, Boston paid $5 million to the family of Victoria Snelgrove after the 21-year-old college student died when police fired pepper-pellet guns into a crowd reveling in the Red Sox pennant victory in 2004 outside Fenway Park.

Snelgrove was hit in the eye by one of the projectiles as police tried to disperse the revelers.

Dept of Justice to Investigate Baltimore

Attorney General Loretta Lynch has just announced a federal “pattern and practice” investigation of the Baltimore Police Department.   This is a mistake.  We already know serious problems exist there.  A report is unnecessary.  Baltimore’s elected officials should be taking bold steps right now to overhaul the police department.  Governor Hogan should also be more engaged to propose and move on necessary reforms.  A federal investigation will result in unnecessary delay.  More here later…

Minneapolis Paid $10.7 Million in Lawsuits


When allegations of police misconduct move from the street to the courtroom — more often than not, Minneapolis has to pay.

KARE 11 requested numbers from the City of Minneapolis and found since January 2010, Minneapolis has dealt with 141 “Officer Conduct lawsuits.” The city won 51 of them — either at trial or when a judge dismissed the case.

But the city had to pay money in 90 of those cases — settling 86 times — and losing four trials.

In that time — Minneapolis has paid $10.7 million for officer conduct lawsuits. That includes two years — 2011 and 2013 — when the city had to pay more than $4 million each year….

In 2011, Minneapolis paid nearly $2.2 million to he family of Dominic Felder, who died in 2006 — shot seven times by two officers.

And in 2010, David Smith died after police used a Taser and held him down outside the downtown Minneapolis YMCA. Minneapolis settled with his family in 2013 for nearly $3.1 million.

A key point here:

David Harris said in his research, one alarming thing he’s found is the lawsuits don’t always lead to a change in police department policies.

Settlement in Civil Rights Lawsuit

From Reuters:

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an accord on Tuesday with the U.S. Justice Department to settle findings that the country’s largest sheriff’s department systematically harassed and intimidated low-income minority residents….

The report concluded that county sheriff’s deputies, along with authorities in the towns of Lancaster and Palmdale, routinely targeted blacks and Hispanics in a “pattern and practice” of unlawful traffic stops, raids and excessive force.

Freddie Gray Funeral

From the Baltimore Sun:

In a funeral service Monday that was both personal and political, family, friends and strangers alike said farewell on Monday to Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man whose death from injuries sustained in police custody has sparked a national furor…

[S]peaker after speaker drew both cheers and tears.

“The eyes of the country are all on us,” former judge and Gray family attorney William “Billy” Murphy told the crowd. “They want to see if we have the stuff to get this right.”

Murphy denounced “the blue wall” that he said protects police from accountability.

“Let’s don’t kid ourselves. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for video cameras,” he said of the cellphone recordings made by bystanders of Gray’s arrest on April 12. “Instead of one cover-up behind that blue wall after another cover-up behind that blue wall … and one lie after another lie, now we see the truth as never before. It’s not a pretty picture.”

Gray was transported in a van to the Western District police station, emerging with what turned out to be a severed spinal cord and crushed voicebox, dying a week later.

Here is a Cato Institute podcast interview with Billy Murphy about police tactics, minorities, and constitutional rights.