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The Problem with Massive Cash Payments from Police Departments

When people win brutality cases against police departments they get paid off, which is good for them but the process erodes trust in the police and doesn't seem to prevent further abuses.

Photo via Flickr user Adam Meek

In July 2010, a homeless street preacher named Marvin Booker was being processed in a Denver County jail when a guard directed him toward a cell. Booker walked in the opposite direction, indicating he needed to grab his shoes. An officer grabbed his arm and Booker resisted, pushing her away. Three more officers jumped on top of him, tasing Booker in the thigh before placing him in a sleeper hold. When the officers stood up, they found Booker limp on the ground, unconscious. He was dead.


Earlier this month, a federal grand jury awarded Booker's family $4.65 million, the largest police settlement in Denver history. "The fight leading up to that verdict was exhausting," says Darold Killmer, the Booker family attorney. "The city spent millions defending themselves against charges of excessive force."

Over the past four years, a number of protests were carried out in Booker's name, some of which resulted in clashes with police. A 2011 march ended with the explosion of a firecracker, resulting in a 20-year-old protester being charged with attempted murder of two police officers for lighting the fuse. Killmer's other clients include the family of Emily Rice, a woman who bled to death in a Denver jail in 2006 after her wounds from an alcohol-related car accident were left unattended.

The Denver Post recently estimated that the city has paid out nearly $13 million over the past decade in settlements involving misconduct from the police and sheriff's departments—and that number doesn't include the nearly $10 million they've been ordered to shell out in the last few months. This follows a trend seen in other law enforcement agencies around the country. Chicago has paid nearly half a billion dollars over the last ten years, and New York has paid a similar amount over the last five.

But do massive payouts actually make people trust the system, or just remind us of all the awful things cops have been up to lately while normalizing the process of making amends after law enforcement crosses a line?


Killmer had originally asked the jury to award Booker's family $15 million, determined "to send a message" to the Denver Police Department. "Denver would perversely claim victory if it was 'only' a million dollars," he told me. "This city has quite a history of brutality in its law enforcement agencies. Marvin's death was a tipping point for community tolerance of this behavior."

So why does Mary Dodge, a criminology professor at the University of Colorado Denver, think police payouts can actually increase tension between cops and civilians?

"Rather than looking at the police department positively, [citizens are] paying out lots of money," she told me in an interview. "One incident a year can cost the city millions of dollars, and it can take years for the public to regain trust."

Dodge thinks city resources might be better spent on preventative measures to keep police from harming the public in the first place. And she's hardly shocked that jails are the sites of some horrific incidents.

"If we see a lot of excessive force cases in jails, it's because they don't have a lot of structured oversight like you do with police departments." she said. "Jails are often ignored. It's difficult to find high-quality employees for correctional officers—they're not paid very much. It's an area that's often ignored by research and by the public until something tragic happens."

That helps explain the tragic case of Jamal Hunter, who endured beatings and the burning of his genitals with boiling water while an inmate of a Denver Corrections facility in 2011. Hunter argued that the incident was carried with the approval of the jail's guards and in August, the Denver City Council voted to give him a $3.25 million settlement.


Tales of misconduct by Denver law enforcement aren't exactly hard to come by. In 2009, a pair of local cops were videotaped beating and macing four women—who showed no evidence of criminal activity—outside of the Denver Diner, resulting in a $360,000 settlement. That same year, 19-year-old Alex Landau was pulled over for an illegal left turn, and while his car was being searched he asked to see a warrant. Instead, he was given a broken nose, a concussion, and 45 stitches across his face. The City Council agreed to pay him $795,000 in 2011.

"I was beaten almost to death with fists, a radio, flashlights, and I had a gun put to my head," Landau said, speaking into a microphone at a protest against police brutality in Denver last Wednesday, only a few blocks from where the incident took place. "After I regained consciousness, the police laughed, saying, 'Where's that warrant now you fucking nigger?' and, 'You don't know how close you were to getting your fucking head blown off.'"

With only around a hundred people in attendance, Denver's contribution to a national day of action against police misconduct amounted to a therapy session for trauma victims. The sun was setting over the mountains, and the chilly air made everyone huddle close together as one story after another involving death at the hands of cops unfolded.

Jack Jacquez Jr., 27, was shot in the back only ten days earlier in by local police in Rocky Ford, Colorado. In a written statement read aloud at the police protest, his father said the police officer was off-duty at the time of the shooting (in happened at 2:30 AM, in Jacquez's home), and that he believes the officer had a personal vendetta against his son.


"We expect our officers to act in a respectful and professional manner at all times," a Denver Police Public Information Officer wrote in an email response to my inquiry about this pattern of violence. "If a situation happens when an officer does not act as he/she is expected to, we will be transparent about the situation."

The officer added that the department is currently in a pilot stage of an officer body camera program, and have "asked Denver City Council for a budget expansion for the 2015 budget so that we can purchase 800 cameras for all patrol and traffic officers." Police departments around the country are moving toward camera programs. Some early indicators suggest cameras make a real difference, but it remains to be seen if they can change the policing culture in big cities like Denver and New York.

But a lack of transparency isn't the primary grievance lobbied against the Denver cops, or police nationwide. Instead, it's the paucity of accountability. Very few of the officers involved in these stories have lost their jobs, and distrust tends to linger. The Emily Rice settlement was supposed to include new training procedures for cops, but all her family has seen so far is the money (they recently called a videotaped police instructional video mandated by the court a "whitewash" ). Landau's case was referred to the FBI, but the Department of Justice decided there wasn't enough evidence to pursue charges for civil rights violations.

Ultimately, cash settlements make for splashy newspaper copy, but don't seem to produce any lasting change.

"When they do settle, they put a price on your life," Landau told me at the police brutality event. "That's the city saying, 'This is what your life is worth to make this injustice go away.' Colorado sets money aside to settle these disputes out of court, because it's business as usual."

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