Shielded from Justice: The High Cost of Living in a Police State

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John W. Whitehead, Founder, the Rutherford Institute

John W. White­head, Founder, the Ruther­ford Insti­tute

It’s been over five months since the night a SWAT team broke into the house in which we were staying…We were stay­ing with rel­a­tives and my whole fam­i­ly was sleep­ing in one room. My hus­band and I, our three daugh­ters and our baby (nick­named “Baby Bou Bou”) in his crib. Dressed like sol­diers, they broke down the door. The SWAT offi­cers tossed a flash­bang grenade into the room. It land­ed in Baby Bou Bou’s crib, blow­ing a hole in his face and chest that took months to heal and cov­er­ing his entire body with scars…

Doc­tors tell us that my son will have to have dou­ble recon­struc­tive surg­eries twice a year, every year for the next 20 years… [I]n five short months our fam­i­ly has tak­en on near­ly $900,000 in med­ical bills, some of which have now gone into col­lec­tions… After ini­tial­ly offer­ing to cov­er the med­ical expens­es, the coun­ty has since refused to cov­er any of our med­ical costs, all of which would nev­er have hap­pened if the SWAT team hadn’t bro­ken into the home.”—Alecia Phone­sa­vanh

Who pays the price for the police shoot­ings that leave unarmed cit­i­zens dead or injured, for the SWAT team raids that leave doors splin­tered, homes trashed, pets mur­dered, and fam­i­ly mem­bers trau­ma­tized and injured, if not dead?

I’m not just talk­ing about the price that must be paid in hard-earned dol­lars, whether by tax­pay­ers or the vic­tims, in attempt­ing to restore what was van­dal­ized and bro­ken by police. It’s also the things that can’t be so eas­i­ly cal­cu­lat­ed to a dec­i­mal point: the bro­ken bones that will nev­er quite heal right, the children’s night­mares at night, the uneasy sleep, the bro­ken fam­i­ly heir­looms, the loss of faith in a sys­tem that was sup­posed to serve and pro­tect you, the grief for loved ones whose lives were cut short.

Baby Bou Bou may have sur­vived the mis­di­rect­ed SWAT team raid that left him with a hole in his face and exten­sive scars on his body, but he will be the one to pay the price for the rest of his life for the SWAT team’s blun­der in launch­ing a flash­bang grenade into his crib. And even though the SWAT team was wrong about the per­son they were after, even though they failed to find any drugs in the home they’d raid­ed, and even though they may have regret­ted the fact that Baby Bou Bou got hurt, it will still be the Phone­sa­vanh fam­i­ly who will pay and pay and pay for the end­less surg­eries every year to recon­struct their son’s face as he grows from tod­dler to boy to teenag­er to man. Already, they have racked up more than $900,000 in med­ical bills. Incred­i­bly, gov­ern­ment offi­cials refused to cov­er the family’s med­ical expens­es.

That is just one family’s expe­ri­ence, the price they must pay for liv­ing in a police state. Tal­ly their pain, their loss and their med­ical bills, and add it to that of the hun­dreds of oth­er fam­i­lies in cities and towns across the nation who are sim­i­lar­ly reel­ing from the blows inflict­ed by the government’s stand­ing armies, and you will find your­self reel­ing. For many of these indi­vid­u­als, there can nev­er be any amount of repa­ra­tion suf­fi­cient to make up for the lives lost or shat­tered.

As for those who do get “paid back,” at least in mon­e­tary terms for their heartache and loss, it’s the tax­pay­ers who are foot­ing the bill to the tune of mil­lions of dol­lars. Incred­i­bly, these cas­es hard­ly impact the police department’s bud­get. As jour­nal­ist Avi­va Shen points out, “indi­vid­ual offi­cers are rarely held account­able for their abus­es, either by the police depart­ment or in court… Inter­nal­ly, police depart­ments rarely inves­ti­gate com­plaints of mis­con­duct, let alone pun­ish the accused offi­cers. Because cities insu­late police offi­cers and depart­ments from the finan­cial con­se­quences for their actions, police on the street have lit­tle incen­tive to avoid unnec­es­sary force, and their depart­ments may not feel the need to crack down on repeat offend­ers. And so the bill for tax­pay­ers keeps grow­ing.”

For exam­ple, Bal­ti­more tax­pay­ers have paid rough­ly $5.7 mil­lion since 2011 over law­suits stem­ming from police abus­es, with an addi­tion­al $5.8 mil­lion going towards legal fees. That’s mon­ey that could have been spent on a state-of-the-art recre­ation cen­ter or ren­o­va­tions at more than 30 play­grounds. As the Bal­ti­more Sun reports: “Vic­tims include a 15-year-old boy rid­ing a dirt bike, a 26-year-old preg­nant accoun­tant who had wit­nessed a beat­ing, a 50-year-old woman sell­ing church raf­fle tick­ets, a 65-year-old church dea­con rolling a cig­a­rette and an 87-year-old grand­moth­er aid­ing her wound­ed grand­son… Offi­cers have bat­tered dozens of res­i­dents who suf­fered bro­ken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trau­ma, organ fail­ure, and even death, com­ing dur­ing ques­tion­able arrests. Some res­i­dents were beat­en while hand­cuffed; oth­ers were thrown to the pave­ment.”

New York tax­pay­ers have shelled out almost $1,130 per year per police offi­cer (there are 34,500 offi­cers in the NYPD) to address charges of mis­con­duct. That trans­lates to $38 mil­lion every year just to clean up after these so-called pub­lic ser­vants. Over a 10-year-peri­od, Oak­land, Calif., tax­pay­ers were made to cough up more than $57 mil­lion (curi­ous­ly enough, the same amount as the city’s deficit back in 2011) in order to set­tle accounts with alleged vic­tims of police abuse.

Chica­go tax­pay­ers were asked to pay out near­ly $33 mil­lion on one day alone to vic­tims of police mis­con­duct, with one per­son slat­ed to receive $22.5 mil­lion, poten­tial­ly the largest sin­gle amount set­tled on any one vic­tim. The City has paid more than half a bil­lion dol­lars to vic­tims over the course of a decade. The Chica­go City Coun­cil actu­al­ly had to bor­row $100 mil­lion just to pay off law­suits aris­ing over police mis­con­duct in 2013. The city’s pay­out for 2014 should be in the same ball­park, espe­cial­ly with cas­es pend­ing such as the one involv­ing the man who was report­ed­ly sodom­ized by a police officer’s gun in order to force him to “coop­er­ate.”

Over 78% of the funds paid out by Den­ver tax­pay­ers over the course of a decade arose as a result of alleged abuse or exces­sive use of force by the Den­ver police and sher­iff depart­ments. Mean­while, tax­pay­ers in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, are being asked to pay $40 mil­lion in compensation—more than the city’s entire budget—for police offi­cers treat­ing them “‘as if they were war com­bat­ants,’ using tac­tics like beat­ing, rub­ber bul­lets, pep­per spray, and stun grenades, while the plain­tiffs were peace­ful­ly protest­ing, sit­ting in a McDon­alds, and in one case walk­ing down the street to vis­it rel­a­tives.”

That’s just a small sam­pling of the most egre­gious pay­outs, but just about every community—large and small—feels the pinch when it comes to com­pen­sat­ing vic­tims who have been sub­ject­ed to dead­ly or exces­sive force by police. The ones who rarely ever feel the pinch are the offi­cers accused or con­vict­ed of wrong­do­ing, “even if they are dis­ci­plined or ter­mi­nat­ed by their depart­ment, crim­i­nal­ly pros­e­cut­ed, or even impris­oned.”

Indeed, a study pub­lished in the NYU Law Review reveals that 99.8% of the monies paid in set­tle­ments and judg­ments in police mis­con­duct cas­es nev­er come out of the offi­cers’ own pock­ets, even when state laws require them to be held liable. More­over, these offi­cers rarely ever have to pay for their own legal defense. As law pro­fes­sor Joan­na C. Schwartz notes, police offi­cers are more like­ly to be struck by light­ning than be made finan­cial­ly liable for their actions.

Schwartz ref­er­ences a case in which three Den­ver police offi­cers chased and then beat a 16-year-old boy, stomp­ing “on the boy’s back while using a fence for lever­age, break­ing his ribs and caus­ing him to suf­fer kid­ney dam­age and a lac­er­at­ed liv­er.” The cost to Den­ver tax­pay­ers to set­tle the law­suit: $885,000. The amount the offi­cers con­tributed: 0.

Kathryn John­ston, 92 years old, was shot and killed dur­ing a SWAT team raid that went awry. Attempt­ing to cov­er their backs, the offi­cers false­ly claimed Johnston’s home was the site of a cocaine sale and went so far as to plant mar­i­jua­na in the house to sup­port their claim. The cost to Atlanta tax­pay­ers to set­tle the law­suit: $4.9 mil­lion. The amount the offi­cers con­tributed: 0.

Mean­while, in Albu­querque, a police offi­cer was con­vict­ed of rap­ing a woman in his police car, in addi­tion to sex­u­al­ly assault­ing four oth­er women and girls, phys­i­cal­ly abus­ing two addi­tion­al women, and kid­nap­ping or false­ly impris­on­ing five men and boys. The cost to the Albu­querque tax­pay­ers to set­tle the law­suit: $1,000,000. The amount the offi­cer con­tributed: 0.

In its report on police bru­tal­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty in the Unit­ed States, Human Rights Watch notes that tax­pay­ers actu­al­ly pay three times for offi­cers who repeat­ed­ly com­mit abus­es: “once to cov­er their salaries while they com­mit abus­es; next to pay set­tle­ments or civ­il jury awards against offi­cers; and a third time through pay­ments into police ‘defense’ funds pro­vid­ed by the cities.”

A large part of the prob­lem can be chalked up to influ­en­tial police unions and laws pro­vid­ing for qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty, which invari­ably allow offi­cers to walk away with­out pay­ing a dime for their wrong­do­ing. Con­ve­nient­ly, those decid­ing whether a police offi­cer should be immune from hav­ing to per­son­al­ly pay for mis­be­hav­ior on the job all belong to the same sys­tem, all cronies with a vest­ed inter­est in pro­tect­ing the police and their infa­mous code of silence: city and coun­ty attor­neys, police com­mis­sion­ers, city coun­cils and judges.

In a nut­shell, the U.S. Supreme Court’s rea­son­ing when it comes to qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty for gov­ern­ment offi­cials (not just police offi­cers) is essen­tial­ly that these offi­cials might be too cau­tious in car­ry­ing out their duties if there was a risk that they might be held per­son­al­ly liable for wrong­do­ing on the job. Frankly, we’d be far bet­ter off if gov­ern­ment offi­cials oper­at­ed under the con­stant fear that there would be ram­i­fi­ca­tions for wrong­do­ing on the job. As it now stands, we’ve got way too many law­break­ers, scoundrels, cheats and thugs on the government’s pay­roll, (many of whom are actu­al­ly elect­ed to office).

So what’s the solu­tion, if any, to a sys­tem so clear­ly rigged that it allows rogue cops who engage in exces­sive force to wreak hav­oc with no fear of finan­cial con­se­quences? As HRW con­cludes:

The exces­sive use of force by police offi­cers, includ­ing unjus­ti­fied shoot­ings, severe beat­ings, fatal chok­ings, and rough treat­ment, per­sists because over­whelm­ing bar­ri­ers to account­abil­i­ty make it pos­si­ble for offi­cers who com­mit human rights vio­la­tions to escape due pun­ish­ment and often to repeat their offens­es…. Offi­cers with long records of abuse, poli­cies that are over­ly vague, train­ing that is sub­stan­dard, and screen­ing that is inad­e­quate all cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for abuse. Per­haps most impor­tant, and con­sis­tent­ly lack­ing, is a sys­tem of over­sight in which super­vi­sors hold their charges account­able for mis­treat­ment and are them­selves reviewed and eval­u­at­ed, in part, by how they deal with sub­or­di­nate offi­cers who com­mit human rights vio­la­tions. Those who claim that each high-pro­file case of abuse by a “rogue” offi­cer is an aber­ra­tion are miss­ing the point: prob­lem offi­cers fre­quent­ly per­sist because the account­abil­i­ty sys­tems are so seri­ous­ly flawed.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we’re so far gone as a nation in terms of crony­ism, cor­rup­tion and unequal jus­tice that there’s lit­tle hope of ref­or­ma­tion work­ing from the top down. As I point out in A Gov­ern­ment of Wolves: The Emerg­ing Amer­i­can Police State, if any change is to be made, if any hope for account­abil­i­ty is to be real­ized it must begin, as always, at the local lev­el, with local police depart­ments and gov­ern­ing bod­ies, where the aver­age cit­i­zen can still, with suf­fi­cient rein­force­ments, make his voice heard.

So the next time you hear of a police shoot­ing in your town of an unarmed cit­i­zen, don’t just shrug help­less­ly and turn the page or switch the chan­nel. Form a coali­tion of con­cerned cit­i­zens and call your prosecutor’s office, email the police depart­ment, speak out at your city coun­cil meet­ing, urge your local paper to cov­er the sto­ry from both sides, blog about it, stage a protest, demand trans­paren­cy and accountability—whatever you do, make sure you send the mes­sage loud and clear that you do not want your tax­pay­er dol­lars sup­port­ing ille­gal and abu­sive behav­ior.