A Lawyer Explains Where Police Shooting Settlement Cash Actually Goes

Police shootings are big business for the attorneys who win wrongful death payouts.

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Apr 28 2016, 4:00am

Photo via Flickr user reynermedia

To the average American, the aftermath of police shootings might seem morbidly routine. After angry calls for a criminal conviction of the cop responsible, a local district attorney usually decides not to indict. That's when protests heat up, if they haven't already. Then, the Department of Justice is called upon to conduct a federal civil rights probe, which sometimes happens, but similarly tends to produce no criminal charges. Finally, the family, or the estate of the victim, files a wrongful death lawsuit against the city or police department behind the incident.

This happened most recently in the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland, Ohio. The 12-year-old boy was shot and killed on a playground in November 2014 by an officer who mistook his toy gun for a real one. Over a year later, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer or his partner, sparking protests in Cleveland and nationwide. The Rice family brought a civil lawsuit, though, and, on Monday, they reached a settlement to the tune of $6 million. (An investigation by the feds, who recently imposed a consent decree to rein in excesses by Cleveland cops, is still pending.)

In police shootings, a settlement is like a begrudging bookend to a criminal justice process that almost always lets the police officer off scot-free. The family attorneys will generally point out that the cash award isn't justice, but at least it accounts for the stark reality that someone is gone forever—and now their loved ones have to figure out how to cope.

Once a settlement is negotiated, though, a new process begins where friends and family of the victim figure out how, exactly, to divvy up the award. To find out more about how this all works, I gave Jonathan Safran, a Milwaukee-based lawyer, a call.

Safran has plenty of experience dealing with police misconduct: In 2012, he settled the case of Frank Jude, Jr., a biracial man who was brutally beaten by off-duty cops outside of a party. All three officers were eventually sentenced to prison in what was then the largest criminal case against the Milwaukee Police Department in its history. On Wednesday, he filed a civil rights lawsuit (and may eventually file a wrongful death claim) on behalf of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill black man who was shot and killed by a white officer in a Milwaukee park two years ago. That officer was fired but not charged. (Last November, the Justice Department also declined to bring civil rights charges.)

Here's what he had to say about how police brutality payouts work in America.

So with someone like Mr. Hamilton's son, how will that money eventually be doled out over time, if you guys get a settlement?
That will, to some degree, depend on future different parties making decisions. Whenever you file a lawsuit where you have a minor, there's often going to be what is called a guardian ad litem. Different states call it different things, but it's an attorney for the case that's going to be appointed by the court, to technically represent the best interests of the child. Even if the child has a parent, the court usually wants to make sure there's someone who's independent to make the best decision for that minor child.

When it gets to the point of settlement, we can do different things. We can structure that money in a structured settlement, so that the child will get certain amounts of money in the future over time. The money can be put into certain kinds of accounts, where the court wants to make sure that no one has access to that money, until the child turns 18. So there are different kinds of vehicles we can use to structure that, or at least protect that money, so that the child isn't getting a huge amount of money at a very young age, when they don't have the ability to handle it. Or that other family members don't have the ability to steal that money sometimes. In all kinds of cases involving minors, we'll frequently do that.

Yeah, and I've seen cases where settlement money has been stolen, or fought over, by relatives and consultants. I remember one situation recently, in Atlanta, where an activist sued a family of a police shooting victim because he said he didn't get his proper fees. Does this happen often?
Absolutely. Then that becomes a matter of interpretation, where you have a grandparent who says, "Well, I really needed that money, but really I was using it to buy a house where the child would be living." But courts look a little wary-eyed at that, saying, "Well, I'm not sure if you should be taking the child's money to do that." Certainly if the child needs new furniture, then maybe, but the courts look at those types of things very carefully, mostly to avoid that type of problem. It happens all the time, though, so you have to be careful with that.

Say it doesn't involve a minor, though, and it's just a family of 20- and 30-somethings. Will they get help with the money to dole it out, or will it be pretty much up to them to figure it out?
It depends on the attorneys. When we're involved in a case like that, I am going to try to do everything I can. There are certain clients who I think are more vulnerable, and I try to help them in any way I can to avoid them being taken advantage of, and to help them either by way of a money manager or a financial adviser. And I'll talk to them if I really have concerns about doing a structured settlement, so that they're only going to get certain amounts of money for certain periods of time into the future. But it really depends on the attorney; if someone is an adult, it really becomes more difficult, certainly if there is a question of competency or something like that.

I try to be very careful, because I always hate to find out that a client has blown through his or her money. I lose sleep over that. But there's nothing dictating that has to be done, especially if someone is an adult.

But, unfortunately, as much as you might hate it, it seems like it's really up to them in the end.
Yep. Their lives, their money. Just like anything else.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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