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Taxpayers in Detroit Suburb Must Pay $1.3 Million in Police Brutality Settlement

The payment will be deducted from the treasury of a city that doesn't have the cash to spare.
June 3, 2015, 5:25pm
Inkster Police Department/Detroit News via AP

Residents of a Detroit suburb will be forced to pay part of a $1.37 million lawsuit settlement following a high-profile police brutality case in the city.

The city of Inkster, Michigan agreed to pay the sum to Detroit resident Floyd Dent after video emergedof a city police officer beating Dent over the head during a traffic stop. The officer, William Melendez, was later charged with assault and misconduct and fired from the department. The police department's chief also resigned, according to The Detroit Free Press.

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The settlement highlights what some criminal justice experts in the country say is a troubling fact: police officers and police departments rarely have to pay for their mistakes. City or county governments that fund police departments end up paying instead, and those governments are funded by taxpayers.

"It's not the police officer that's going to be paying them out of his or her pocket," David Harris, a law professor and criminal justice expert at the University of Pittsburgh, told VICE News.

Officers are typically indemnified by the department, he said. "Even if they're found to be responsible, they won't pay the $4 million or whatever it is. It will be the municipality. The crucial thing is it won't be the police department that's paying it."

Harris said that because the cost is "externalized," the police departments tend not to pay too much attention to them.

"The police department doesn't really have to think much," he said. "It doesn't affect them."

Related: Seattle's Former Police Chief Speaks Out About Ferguson and Police Brutality

In the case of Inkster, residents will have to pay an additional $178.67 on a home valued at $55,400, the median price in the city, in order to pay for the settlement, according to the report.  Forty percent of Inkster residents live below the poverty level and the median income is less than $27,000.

Joanna Schwartz, a UCLA law professor who last year published a study called "Police Indemnification" in the New York University Law Review, found that police are almost always shielded from having to pay damages themselves.The Supreme Court granted immunity to protect them because "fear of being sued will 'dampen the ardor of all but the most resolute, or the most irresponsible [public officials] in the unflinching discharge of their duties,'" Schwartz wrote, quoting the court.

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Since police officers are protected from personally paying damages when they act irresponsibly or cause injury, it would logically fall to the police departments to do so, but they typically don't have the funds, Schwartz and Harris told VICE News.

"Law enforcement agencies on the whole aren't money-generating," Schwartz said. "The money for police department budgets generally come from the city or county, and money to satisfy settlements and judgments come from city or county as well."

Often, in cities larger than Inkster (pop. 24,000), the governments have enough money to pay the settlements without passing it directly onto taxpayers, such as with the Inkster settlement, she said. What's unique about the Inkster judgment is that the city can't tap into reserves to pay the cost.

Leaders of Inkster, including the interim police chief, Mayor, and city treasurer, did not immediately respond to requests for comment from VICE News. Nor did Dent's representatives.  City residents expressed their frustration to the Detroit Free Press.

"I think it's just horrible," Sandra Studvent told the paper. "Taxes are high enough. Why should we pay for something we didn't do?"

"We should not be taking the burden," Jessie Shelby said. "That's not our problem."

Erick Shelley, an organizer for the advocacy group Michigan United, said that it was actually a good thing that Inkster had made the cost of the settlement transparent and passed it to taxpayers to give them an opportunity to hold their police department accountable.

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"We applaud the city of Inkster for taking the bold step to make the cost of police brutality so readily transparent," Shelley said in a statement to VICE News. "By comparison, the city of Detroit has spent 30 million dollars quietly settling civil suits for police abuse over the past 7 years. However, by making the cost of just one rogue cop a line item in their tax bill, the city of Inkster will finally allow residents, some of whom may never have personally suffered police abuse themselves, to decide if a corrupt police force is really worth the cost."

Related: Chicago is Going to Pay Reparations to People the Police Tortured Decades Ago

Schwartz and Harris note that the costs of police brutality are often passed onto the taxpayers. Schwartz's study surveyed settlements from 44 of the largest police departments in the country, and found that taxpayers paid nearly $730 million to victims of police civil rights violations from 2006 to 2011.

"I think we're always shocked when we see cities paid hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for police misconduct over the years and we always ask why didn't the police department change anything, but the answer is they don't care. They don't pay," Harris said.

The result of having a city government or taxpayers pick up the tab is that it "removes all incentive for the police department to do a better job," Harris said.

Some cities will require the police department to appear before the city council and answer questions about why they need the money and how the incident happened, which encourages some accountability, "but most places it is simply assessed to city treasury," Harris said.

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The only recourse for citizens, Schwartz said, is engaging politically with the city government to try and ensure the police department is acting on citizens' behalf, and to try and use the political process to end the behavior that led to the settlement in the first place.

"These are officers who are representing our government and us by association, so the question comes down to who should bear those costs and what that says about our society," Schwartz said. "To my view the answer is not that the people harmed by police shouldn't be able to recover (the settlements) but that the people who are paying these settlements and judgments should engage with the government about the kind of behavior of their law enforcement officers."

Harris isn't so optimistic. Poor communities, he said, are already unable to pay police officers very well, sometimes paying them as low as $10 an hour and then stretching them thin because they cannot hire enough officers.

"When you put those two things together, you increase the risk of something going terribly wrong, and then if things do, it makes the whole problem worse," he said.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

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