Even as the amount paid out annually to settle lawsuits against the New York City Police Department continues to grow significantly, a 2014 risk management collaboration initiated by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer with the NYPD and a dramatic rollback of the stop and frisk strategy are helping to reduce the number of new claims being filed.
According to the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report released last month, in fiscal year 2015 the city paid out $202.6 million to settle claims brought against the NYPD. That is substantially more than the $154.1 million paid in the previous fiscal year, and more than double the $86.5 million paid out a decade earlier in 2005.
At the same time as this recent spike in payouts, new claims initiated against the NYPD dropped for a second consecutive year, from 3,997 in 2013 to 3,549 in 2015.
Under the city charter, the New York City comptroller is charged with the responsibility of vetting proposed tort claim settlements. In 2014, Stringer announced the launch of what he called ClaimStat, a variation on the NYPD’s CompStat, which tracks weekly crime trends at the precinct level.
ClaimStat uses data generated by all of the lawsuits and tort claims filed against every city agency. By that year, the city was paying $670 million to settle thousands of claims ranging from medical malpractice to personal injury resulting from fallen tree limbs hitting pedestrians in the city’s sprawling park system.
The data permits Stringer to map and identify which police precincts are being sued the most and which ones have been most successful at managing the risks that come with the work they do. Stringer’s latest ClaimStat analysis, released last October, flagged precincts in the South Bronx and central Brooklyn as litigation hotspots “that continue to have far more claims filed against their officers than precincts in other parts of the City.”
According to a Stringer report, along with ClaimStat, his new joint working group with the NYPD was “an unprecedented sharing of information in real time” with the NYPD. The collaboration also helps Stringer’s staff more effectively “decide whether to resolve or reject frivolous claims far earlier in the process,” the report says.
For years New York City’s declining crime rate was accompanied by thousands of civilian complaints every year and an exponential rise in payouts to settle civil rights and tort claims brought against the police.
By fiscal year 2010, the NYPD topped all city agencies when it came to settlement costs. By 2013, the NYPD accounted for 37 percent of all of the city’s payouts. Over the Bloomberg years in excess of a billion dollars was paid out to settle NYPD tort claims.
Experts say that the dollar payout amounts are actually a “lagging indicator” because they reflect the resolution of lawsuits stemming from incidents that go several years back but take as long as a decade to be settled, at which point the payout finally hits the city’s balance sheet.
A case in point is the Central Park Five, a group of five young men who were arrested and charged in 1989 for the brutal beating and rape of a Central Park jogger. In 2002, the men were exonerated after another man confessed to the crime and DNA evidence from the crime corroborated that confession.
It wasn’t until September of 2014 that a federal judge signed off on the $41.1 million settlement between the city with the five men, who were arrested as teenagers but are now middle aged.
“Payouts reflect incidents that transpired potentially many years ago,” said Joanna Schwartz, a professor of law at UCLA and one of the nation’s leading experts on police misconduct. “But new lawsuits filed, that reflects a snapshot of how people view their treatment by police in the more recent past because most claims have a three-year statute of limitations.”
Schwartz says historically, both here in New York City and across the country, there has been a disconnect between the large payouts made by local governments for bad police behavior, and any effort at critically examining the police behavior that prompted the lawsuits in the first place. But in Los Angeles, police successfully used details from the cases where they were named in as defendants to identify areas for professional improvement, Schwartz noted.
Schwartz says that while “several prior city comptrollers” had asked the NYPD to use the information and data generated by the tort cases as a way to curb the sharp rise on both payouts and suits filed, “Stringer was the first to actually do something about it” with his collaboration with the NYPD.
New York City’s corporation counsel, which is charged with defending the city in court, declined to comment for this story.
This back-to-back decline in new lawsuits initiated comes as Police Commissioner Bill Bratton continues to refine the NYPD’s approach to community policing amid a continued decline in crime, including dialing back on some of the more aggressive quality of life enforcement strategies that rely on making arrests and issuing summonses.
Bratton recently told radio host John Gambling that he viewed the use of such quality of life enforcement strategies like the application of chemotherapy on a cancer patient. “Like medicine, the idea is to first do no harm,” Bratton told Gambling. “Only use the amount appropriate to make the patient better. As the patient gets better, you use less medicine.”
The drop-off in new claims coincides with the NYPD’s dramatic roll back in the use of stop and frisk. In 2011 during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, the NYPD reported making more than 680,000 such stops, overwhelmingly of young men of color. In response to widespread protest, the number of such stops dropped to 192,000 in Bloomberg’s last year in office.
In 2012, then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly testified before City Council members that the annual NYPD settlement costs “were a significant amount” and probably were associated with stop and frisk, which he credited with helping to get several hundreds guns off the street every year.
Even while reducing the use of stop and frisk toward the end of his tenure, Kelly maintained the controversial strategy helped the city drive violent crime down to historic lows.
In 2013, the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactics were ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.
As a candidate, de Blasio made stop and frisk a central issue on his campaign, and in his first year in office there were just 45,787 such police-civilian encounters. By 2015, the number was down to just 24,000.
But for years, there has been tension between the city’s lawyers in the corporation counsel’s office and the NYPD over a history of settling suits against the NYPD, using the business logic that it’s often cheaper to settle than litigate them. Such settlements are no admission of wrongdoing on the part of New York City or the NYPD, but NYPD supporters complained that the settlements undermined the department’s public image and provided an economic incentive for the filing of more such suits.
In 2014, Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch wrote to Bratton and Zachary Carter, the city’s corporation counsel, to complain that a “cottage industry had been spawned in the legal community that was “generating baseless lawsuits for economic benefit” that had the effect “of seriously injuring the reputation of good police officers who are often not given the opportunity to defend themselves.”
NYPD officers are now notified when the city is sued over incidents that involve them, the department confirmed. With rare exceptions, when officers have actually broken the law New York City shields them from being personally sued for actions they took while on the job.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a longtime critic of the NYPD, welcomed the decline in new lawsuits filed against the NYPD.
“The reduction in stop and frisk and less emphasis on the aggressive ‘broken windows’ policing may not just yield a peace dividend but a financial one as well,” Lieberman told City & State.