Across our country, it seems a month doesn’t go by without another news headline reporting on the wrongful death of a citizen at the hands of our nation’s police officers. High profile wrongful death cases in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and New York City highlight some of the many incidents plaguing our streets. Just last year, the family of Eric Garner, was awarded $5.9 million to resolve the much-publicized wrongful death claim over Garner’s killing by police in Staten Island, New York. In Los Angeles, a jury awarded $8 million to the family of Darren Burley, who died after being put in a deadly chokehold by police in Compton. And in Colorado, a federal jury awarded a record $4.65 million to the family of Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher who died during a struggle with police while held in a Denver jail.
According to Joanna C. Schwartz, a UCLA Law professor who authored a study on this topic police are nearly always indemnified from financial responsibility in cases of alleged abuse or wrongful death – and even when police can be forced to pay something, they almost never are, she says. That leaves the municipality with the bill. And while the payouts bring some aid to traumatized families and put the spotlight on police misconduct, there’s little evidence that the financial penalties lead to any kind of reform in police departments, says Schwartz.
“That’s been one of the big struggles for police accountability. We want to use these civil suits not just to have compensation for the victim, but in hopes of deterring widespread police misconduct,” says law professor Kami Chavis Simmons, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University. “If they have to pay these fines, they’re going to be really monitoring and paying attention to what police are doing, and implementing policies that will limit their exposure.”
The cost of resolving police misconduct cases has surged for many U.S. cities in recent years, even before the current wave of scrutiny over headline-grabbing law-enforcement tactics. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, the 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million last year in settlements and court judgments in police-misconduct cases, up 48 percent from $168.3 million in 2010. In Denver alone, actions by police in the past 11 years have led to more than $8 million in settlement payouts to citizens over complaints that often involve brutality, lying, and wrongful deaths.
After several years of police reform efforts to eliminate wrongful deaths and other abuses, the Denver police department still isn’t immune to incidents. “A great deal of that change was prompted by community frustration with police misconduct and the time it took to resolve administrative cases against police officers,” says Denver Police Chief, Robert White. “There is still room to improve, and I am committed to move to that end.”
If you suspect that you or someone you love was the victim of a wrongful death, please contact an experienced Denver wrongful death lawyer to discuss your situation and help you understand your rights in a wrongful death claim.