According to the report, issued by the city's Independent Police Review office, the city is afraid that investigating alleged misconduct when legal action is possible would create a paper trail, thus helping victims and their lawyers secure reimbursement for pain and suffering.
City Hall's unwritten policy means that lawsuits intended to discourage police brutality may actually help it continue. "If an officer has acted in an inappropriate way then the Bureau needs to take corrective action, not ignore the situation," says City Auditor Gary Blackmer, who oversees the IPR office. "I think it is unfair that a complaint that involves an attorney is not given the same treatment as a complaint filed by a citizen."
Blackmer and IPR Director Richard Rosenthal want the city, with IPR oversight, to investigate incidents that have sparked real or threatened legal action--just as it does any other police-misconduct complaint. Other law-enforcement agencies, such as Los Angeles County and Seattle, have done so with the result of reducing lawsuits and payouts, according to the report.
Blackmer, who holds an elected post, is well-respected by city commissioners, and Rosenthal, a former prosecutor, is frequently criticized as too cop-friendly ("Cop Watchpuppy Takes a Nap," WW, Aug. 7, 2002). But from the response they're getting, you'd think they were grenade-throwing radicals.
Mayor Vera Katz called their proposal "foolhardy, and a violation of our fiduciary responsibility," saying that "to initiate a response to tort claims and lawsuits...would expose the city and its taxpayers to increased financial liability."
In response to the IPR investigation of how the city deals with potential legal cases, the city has set up a special committee, made up of police, legal and mayoral staffers, to review filed or threatened lawsuits. But Rosenthal and Blackmer say that does not go far enough.
The problem is that the cases involving lawyers are the most serious and credible ones--because they are the most likely to have evidence like photos, witnesses and medical reports. In looking at all citizen complaints made against the cop shop between January 2002 and June 2003, IPR found that only 15 percent (137 out of 886) alleged excessive force, while half of the lawsuits or threats to sue (78 out of 156) in that period did so.
"Typically, unless there are serious injuries, attorneys are not going to bring the case," explains local lawyer Spencer Neal, the city's dean of cop-lawsuits. "[Otherwise] it's not just worth the time and expense to bring the lawsuit."
Out of the 156 filed or threatened lawsuits, the litigant also filed a citizen complaint against the officer with the bureau 53 times. But it's unclear whether those complaints have as good a chance of resulting in accountability: Police officials say privately that cops who are sued are almost guaranteed not to be disciplined.
Neal says the city's current policy just gives him more work to do: "It's just bad public policy not to take care of problems. There are some cops who've been sued a number of times. I don't think anything has ever been done to them formally. You wouldn't have as many lawsuits if they would resolve these issues of bad cops."