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City Budgets and the Hidden Cost of Unaccountable Policing

July 22, 2017

Numerous American cities have recorded incidents where police officers’ use of force led to unnecessary civilian deaths. Those incidents spurred organizations like Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to petition for increased police accountability, under the belief that accountability on police results in increased citizen safety. Video evidence from deadly incidents with Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Zachary Hammond demonstrate accountability’s centrality, particularly when considered with testimonies of other police misconduct such as assault [1].

Notably, proposals to reduce instances of police misconduct tend to elevate civilian knowledge of police procedures. In particular, advocates hope to accomplish this by having citizens become independent consultants to the police force. This would not only increase civilian familiarity with police procedures but create opportunities for the police to receive feedback from their constituents [2]. Advocates also hope to establish legal requirements that officers notify civilians of their right to file complaints during police stops [3]. Furthermore, civilians will feel safer from police abuse if municipalities establish an investigative office separate from police. This office could investigate complaints regarding the use of force without the same conflicts of interest as internal police investigators, who might be less critical when tasked with investigating their colleagues [4]. These changes in civilian-police interactions allow for more engagement between civilians and police outside of tense stops, while also reminding police that they should treat civilians with fairness and honesty.

In calling for these proposals, organizations tend to focus on the impact that unaccountable police departments have on the health of citizens and citizens’ faith in public institutions [5]. Granted, those reasons for police accountability are crucial for revealing the humanitarian impact of these policies, but integrating an economic incentive into the police accountability debate should provide these proposals with additional impetus. Specifically, a police department that routinely permits abusive practices often forces its city government to engage in and settle expensive lawsuits - lawsuits that compete with resources from a litany of services: courts, public defense, storm drainage, public schools, public transportation, the number of police officers and so on. Evidently, as a city government negotiates with victims and issues payments, it reduces its capacity to maintain or increase funding for other services.

Image: The map shows homicides and gunshot wounds in Chicago versus the locations of trauma centers in the city. Source: Creative Commons.Image: The map shows homicides and gunshot wounds in Chicago versus the locations of trauma centers in the city. Source: Creative Commons.

The city of Chicago has settled over $662 million in various lawsuits since 2004 due to accusations that a number of officers physically forced false confessions in the 1970s and 1980s, along with other cases of excessive force and harassment [6]. Furthermore, statistics from The Chicago Tribune reveal that this tab could grow. In January 2017, there were 27 active cases where formerly incarcerated plaintiffs had their convictions “reversed” and sued the city over its policing practices [7]. Likewise, New York City settled almost $635 million on police brutality cases from 2007 through 2016’s fiscal years [8]. Facing a cover-up concocted by five officers and fallout from several questionable police shootings, New Orleans decided to settle a series of suits for $13.3 million [9] [10].

At the same time that these cities settled the lawsuits mentioned, they were engaged in budget crises. The Chicago Tribune reported last February that Chicago Public Schools faced a budget deficit of approximately $500 million for the previous fiscal year [11]. And in New Orleans, the city’s small police department and high crime rate demonstrates the department’s need for additional funds. As The New Orleans Advocate writes “the [police] force’s net gain currently stands at 10 additional officers [for 2016], as veterans continue to leave the department, an analysis of NOPD personnel data shows. NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said the department has lost 60 officers this year as a result of retirement, resignation, termination, and death.” Surely, New Orleans would have more officers and a higher retention rate if it had the funds to offer higher pay to current officers and prospective recruits [12]. Other cities would benefit from the ability to provide additional pay and crime prevention resources to police officers. Likewise, Chicago could have ameliorated its schooling crisis if there were fewer payments to police brutality victims, or rather if there were fewer victims.

Occasionally, settlements between city governments and police brutality victims or their families include changes toward police accountability [13]. Yet that trend should not continue. Allowing settlements to drive police accountability rather than political impetus is expensive. If instead, cities and departments had adopted accountability measures, officers would not perceive their aura of immunity; they would feel that the use of force should be limited to what the situation necessitated. If officers knew their body cameras were recording their citizen interactions, if they knew that a stopped person had a reasonable chance of having their complaint addressed through a reliable procedure, officers would recognize that the state would not be biased toward officers. A more reliable police procedure would check police power in the same way that the branches of government check each other. The presence of this check would lead police to recognize that their actions were not presumed to be justified. Additionally, it is imperative to remember that orienting city police departments toward accountability before further lawsuits lessens the number of citizens unjustifiably harmed by the police.

It is true that accountability measures have a fiscal cost. Periodic training regarding de-escalation techniques, funds to fortify the complaint process, and an independent prosecutor’s office would indeed have fiscal costs. And admittedly, the procedure for determining the fiscal costs of these reforms can be difficult. However, some existing data foreshadows the cost of police transparency and accountability. For instance, New Orleans allocated $1.2 million for the purchase of 350 cameras and corresponding preservation of data. That usage of body cameras will reduce the infallibility of officers by forcing them to reconsider de-escalation techniques, given that watchdogs have the ability to request their tapes. Predicting the cost of effective, independent prosecutors is more difficult, especially given that the amount of funding might vary based on the amount of cases that year. However, I predict that, at least for some cities, establishing a local special prosecutor will save costs. The same cost-cutting goal might be accomplished if the city instead contributes to a statewide independent special prosecutor. Wisconsin provides a recent figure for this type of office; its justice department requested about $386,000 for 2017 to investigate officer-involved deaths [15]. (States and localities will need to consider population comparisons when using this figure.) The absence of these transparency and accountability measures is inefficient for long-term spending despite the cost of some accountability elements.

Creating a more transparent, accountable police force will decrease instances of police brutality against citizens. In turn, this will cause complaints against police departments to decline on a systemic scale. One can expect the instances of cities issuing huge payouts to subsequently decrease in response to a greater system of accountability and less abuse. Specifically, public knowledge of a thorough complaint process and a different culture around the consequences of excessive force will decrease payments that result from violence against citizens.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.



  [1] Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, May 2015, 58, https://cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/taskforce_finalreport.pdf.

  [2] Ibid, 22

  [3] Ibid, 21

  [4] Ibid, 27

  [5] Ibid, 31

  [6] Crimesider Staff, CBS/AP, “How Chicago Racked Up a $662 Million Police Misconduct Bill,” Mar. 21, 2016. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-chicago-racked-up-a-662-million-police-misconduct-bill/

  [7] Hal Dardick “Chicago still faces dozens of conviction cases,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 24, 2017. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-police-misconduct-settlements-met-0125-20170124-story.html

  [8] Scott M. Stringer, “Annual Claims Report: Fiscal Year 2016.” New York City Comptroller, Feb. 10, 2017. https://comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/annual-claims-report/. For further reading, this report also provides useful charts on the number of police settlements and claims.

  [9] The Associated Press, “Judge Refuses to Toss Lawsuit OVer Fatal Police Beating of Raymond Robair,” The Times Picayune, May 3, 2016. http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2016/05/judge_refuses_to_toss_lawsuit.html

  [10] Kevin Litten, “New Orleans to Pay $13.3M to settle NOPD Civil Rights Violations in Post-Katrina Chaos,” The Times Picayune, Dec. 19, 2016. http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/12 katrina_civil_rights_settlemen.html

  [11] Juan Perez Jr. “CPS Shortfall of $500 million From Last Year Hangs Over Current Budget Woes,” The Chicago Tribune, Feb. 3, 2017. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-chicago-schools-finance-trouble-met-20170203-story.html

  [12] Emily Lane, “NOPD Hiring More OFficers, But Making Only Slight Gains in Size of Force,” The Times Picayune, July 28, 2016, http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2016/07/nopd_manpower_response_times.html

  [13] Alan Feur, “In Police Misconduct Lawsuits, Potent Incentives Point to a Payout,” The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/nyregion/police-misconduct-lawsuit-settlements.html?mcubz=1

  [14] Police Executive Research Forum, “Implementning a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned,” Police Executive Research Forum, 2014 http://www.policeforum.org/assets/docs/Free_Online_Documents/Technology/implementing%20a%20body-worn%20camera%20program.pdf

  [15] Department of Administration of Wisconsin, “Department of Justice: Governor’s Budget Recommendations,” Department of Administration of Wisconsin, February 2017.


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