08/24/2010 01:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Police Reform Can Save Newark Money and Lives

Faced with a $70 million budget gap, Mayor Cory Booker has proposed cost-cutting measures ranging from layoffs to shutting down city pools to wiping out the city's toilet paper budget.

But one important area for potential multi-million dollar savings hasn't gotten the attention it deserves: cutting the astronomical costs of police misconduct. Each year, Newark spends millions of dollars defending itself in lawsuits and paying out settlements to victims of police abuse.

The public hears little about police misconduct lawsuits because the vast majority of cases settle, and victims are typically forced to agree to remain silent as a condition of settlement. In addition, only settlements over $21,000 require approval from the city council. Public records about all settlements exist, but there is no central location, making it difficult for citizens who want to know the actual cost of police misconduct.

To uncover the true costs of police misconduct, the ACLU of New Jersey has combed court databases, meeting minutes and a battery of public records.

This is what we found: Between January 2008 and July 2010, there were 24 cases brought by citizens against the Newark Police that ended in settlement or arbitration. For the 19 cases those settlement amounts we could uncover, Newark paid out $1,041,617. That figure is only for cases that have already settled - there are another 31 cases pending. And that same 18 months, at least 51 tort claims were filed against the police department - notices of lawsuits to come.

The cases describe nightmarish encounters with police: beatings, malicious prosecution, arrests of people videotaping police, homophobic slurs, recklessly driven police cars, and at least one sexual assault. Many of the officers named in the cases have a history of complaints against them, including one who has racked up 62 Internal Affairs complaints and another with 45.

Starting Monday, the ACLU-NJ will publish the details of a dozen such cases - settled and pending - brought by citizens against the Newark police on its website. We will release one case per day for the next twelve business days. Until now, most of these cases had never seen the light of day.

In the same 18-month period, the ACLU-NJ uncovered 11 settlements and one verdict in cases in which the Newark Police Department was sued by its own employees. In these cases, Newark had to pay a total of $2,691,503. Again, this covers only cases that have concluded; there are another nine cases filed by employees pending. The details of the cases that already settled, which the ACLU-NJ released in July, not only reveal the high financial costs of police recklessness, but the costs to officer morale and their professionalism on patrol.

When counting the costs, it's important to remember that the money paid to those who sue makes up just one part of the bill. Taxpayers also foot the enormous expense of municipal lawyers and outside law firms defending the city in these suits, as well as the legal fees the city must pay opposing counsel when it loses in court. In the case of Darren Nance, a terminated Newark Police officer who recently won a $600,000 verdict, the total cost of the city's defense, the plaintiff's legal fees and the calculation of interest owed to Nance will ultimately reach into the millions.

Make no mistake - this money comes from taxpayers. Newark doesn't have liability insurance. In fact, the settlement money comes from a general liability line in the city budget, not from the budget of the police department, so the Newark Police Department does not directly feel the financial pain of the pain its officers inflict.

And the financial costs are only the ones we can easily quantify; the steeper costs are incalculable. In the words of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, "If individuals' civil rights are compromised, public trust and confidence in the police are severely compromised." In other words, police misconduct severely jeopardizes community safety and erodes the trust officers need from the public to effectively fight crime.

Lawsuits and settlements can serve as teachable moments: they can reveal important information regarding dangerous patterns and practices in a department. Our review of lawsuits against Newark shows identical problems and behaviors spanning decades. When properly utilized, this data can provide police leadership the information they need to institute better training and accountability systems. Simply paying out damages will only lead to more abuse and more costs for the citizens of Newark.

Instead of trying to smooth over its mistakes with payouts, Newark should invest in reforms that can generate massive returns - in dollars, in lives, and in public confidence - allowing Newark to chart a path toward a new identity as a lean organization that will respect individual rights as capably as it protects public safety.

Until then, the citizens will involuntarily foot the bill for officers who violate our rights and for leaders who neglect the underlying problems that have plagued a floundering department for decades.