If a cop kills an unarmed black person, and that person's family then sues the police, how much can the city expect to pay?
Six million dollars, give or take.
On Monday, the 2014 shooting death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy from Cleveland, became the fourth infamous police killing in the past two years to be settled out of court by a city for roughly this amount of money. Each of the four agreements spared the cities in question the obligation to admit wrongdoing.
It probably doesn't mean anything that these four settlements all ended up clustered in roughly the same price range. After all, in various other cases that involved an unarmed black person being killed by police, the resulting settlements were for different dollar amounts. But the seven-figure sums do reflect the rising cost of police killings for cities determined to avoid lengthy and even costlier trials.
Advocates for criminal justice reform argue that payouts like these, largely funded by taxpayers, are a poor substitute for genuine police accountability and do little to deter police misconduct. Instead, critics say, these settlements merely shift the cost of malfeasance onto the public.
The city of Cleveland announced on Monday that it will pay exactly $6 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of Tamir Rice. Tamir, an unarmed black boy, was shot and killed by a white police officer in November 2014. He was holding a toy gun that the two white cops who confronted him said they believed was real. Tamir was killed within seconds of the police arriving at the scene.
The Cleveland settlement did not include an admission of wrongdoing by the city’s police force, according to The Washington Post. A grand jury declined in December to indict the two officers involved, including the one who fired the fatal shots.
The city of North Charleston, South Carolina, agreed to pay the family of Walter Scott $6.5 million in a legal settlement last October. The city did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement. A white police officer shot Scott in the back in April 2015, killing him. Video footage shows Scott, an unarmed 50-year-old black man, being gunned down as he ran from his vehicle during a routine traffic stop. The video contradicted the official police account of the incident and shocked the country.
Michael Slager, the officer who killed Scott, is no longer on the force. He will stand trial for murder on Oct. 31.
In September 2015, the city of Baltimore provided a $6.4 million settlement to the family of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old unarmed black man who'd died five months earlier from a spinal injury sustained in police custody. The settlement exceeded the total $5.7 million that Baltimore paid between 2011 and 2014 to settle police misconduct lawsuits.
Gray’s death sparked days of civil unrest and rioting in Baltimore, where many black residents believe the police prosecute minor crimes overzealously and treat residents callously.
Although six officers involved in Gray’s arrest and transportation have been indicted for their role in his death, the city’s settlement did not acknowledge wrongdoing by Baltimore police.
And in July 2015, New York City agreed to pay $5.9 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black man who died in a police chokehold in July 2014 while officers were trying to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. Video of the incident shows Garner, lying in a prone position on the sidewalk as the cops forcibly handcuff him, protesting, "I can't breathe. I can't breathe." They were his last words.
The settlement in Garner's case also denied wrongdoing. A grand jury declined in December 2014 to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the New York police officer who placed Garner in a prohibited chokehold.
In addition to the obvious prospect of moral hazard these settlements raise by preventing police officers and departments from being held accountable for their worst misdeeds, they are putting a strain on cities’ finances. The Huffington Post's Nick Wing examined in May how much cities have paid to settle police misconduct lawsuits in recent years -- and provided examples of the kinds of public projects that money could have otherwise paid for.
Some legal experts have suggested making police officers pay a portion of the settlements that result from their actions. New York Daily News writer Shaun King suggested on Monday that the settlement money come from police retirement coffers.