More than $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of obcers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Taxpayers are often in the dark.
By Keith L. Alexander, Steven Rich and Hannah Thacker March 9, 2022
An examination of policing in America amid the push for reform.
Tony Murray was getting ready for bed ahead of his 6 a.m. shift at a potato chip factory. As he turned off the final light in the living room, he glanced out of his window and saw a half-dozen uniformed police officers with guns drawn approach his home. As the officers banged on the door, Murray ordered Keno, his black Labrador retriever, to the basement. As Murray let the officers in, one quickly pushed him to the floor and at least two others ran to the cellar, he said. “Don’t kill my dog. He won’t bite you,” Murray pleaded. The sound of gunshots filled the house. Keno’s barking, the 56-year-old recalled, morphed into the sound of “a girl screaming.” Officers searched Murray’s home for nearly an hour, flipping his sofa and emptying drawers. Outside, Murray approached the officers standing by their vehicles. One handed him a copy of the search warrant, which stated they were looking for illegal drugs. Murray noticed something else: The address listed wasn’t his. It was his neighbor’s. Months after the 2014 raid, Murray, who was not charged with any crimes, sued Detroit police for gross negligence and civil rights violations, naming Officer Lynn Christopher Moore, who filled out the search warrant, and the other five officers who raided his home. The city eventually paid Murray $87,500 to settle his claim,but admitted no error by police. That settlement was not the first or last time that Detroit would resolve allegations against Moore with a check: Between 2010 and 2020, the city settled 10 claims involving Moore’s police work, paying more than $665,000 to individuals who alleged the officer used excessive force, made an illegal arrest or wrongfully searched a home. Moore is among the more than 7,600 officers — from Portland, Ore., to Milwaukee to Baltimore — whose alleged misconduct has more than once led to payouts to resolve lawsuits and claims of wrongdoing, according to a Washington Post investigation. The Post collected data on nearly 40,000 payments at 25 of the nation’s largest police and sheriff’s departments within the past decade, documenting more than $3.2 billion spent to settle claims. The investigation for the first time identifies the officers behind the payments. Data were assembled from public records filed with the financial and police departments in each city or county and excluded payments less than $1,000. Court records were gathered for the claims that led to federal or local lawsuits. The total amounts further confirm the broad costs associated with police misconduct, as reported last year by FiveThirtyEight and the Marshall Project. The Post found that more than 1,200 officers in the departments surveyed had been the subject of at least five payments. More than 200 had 10 or more. The repetition is the hidden cost of alleged misconduct: Officers whose conduct was at issue in more than one payment accounted for more than $1.5 billion, or nearly half of the money spent by the departments to resolve allegations, The Post found. In some cities, officers repeatedly named in misconduct claims accounted for an even larger share. For example, in Chicago, officers who were subject to more than one paid claim accounted for more than $380 million of the nearly $528 million in payments. The Post analysis found that the typical payout for cases involving officers with multiple claims — ranging from illegal search and seizure to use of excessive force — was $10,000 higher than those involving other officers. Despite the repetition and cost, few cities or counties track claims by the names of the officers involved — meaning that officials may be unaware of officers whose alleged misconduct is repeatedly costing taxpayers. In 2020, the 25 departments employed 103,000 officers combined, records show. “Transparency is what needs to be in place,” said Frank Straub, director of the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies, adding that his organization has called for departments nationwide to publicize cases with settlements. “When you have officers who have repeated allegations … it calls for extremely close examination of both the individual cases and the totality of the cases to figure out what’s driving this behavior and these reactions and to see if there is a pattern in an officer’s behavior that triggers these cases.” Defenders of police have a different view. City officials and attorneys representing the police departments said settling claims is often more cost-efficient than fighting them in court. And settlements rarely involve an admission or finding of wrongdoing. Because of this there is no reason to hold officers accountable for them, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police labor union with more than 364,000 members. “If there’s never been a finding of guilt or anyone’s fault, why put that in an officer’s record?” Pasco said. “That would be such a glaring omission of due process where in the legal system in the United States, a person is innocent until proven guilty.” The Post reached out to scores of officers named in claims that led to payments. Some were no longer working for the departments. Most had no comment or, like Moore, did not return phone calls. Payments for claims involving Officer Lynn Christopher Moore, 2010 - 2020 Source: Detroit Law Department Two officers in Boston who had the highest number of claims settled have since retired. But both said the allegations — ranging from excessive force to wrongful arrest — did not accurately portray their work while on the force. Paul Murphy, who was named in four lawsuits totaling about $5.2 million in payments, said he “tried to do the best he could” as an officer. But he added, “sometimes things happened.” He declined to elaborate. Gerald Cofield was named in three lawsuits that totaled about $306,000 in payments. Cofield said he wished the city had fought the claims instead of settling because he believed city attorneys would have won, and his name and reputation would have been cleared. “We are not the bad guys these lawsuits paint us to be,” he said.
MORE ON POLICE AND REFORM MORE IN THIS SERIES The hidden billion-dollar cost of repeated police misconduct March 9, 2022 Police shootings continue daily, despite a pandemic, protests and pushes for reform July 30, 2021 When communities try to hold police accountable, law enforcement dates back April 27, 2021 View all 6 stories About this story Editing by David Fallis, Meghan Hoyer and Sarah Childress. e department itself. Reporters then standardized and cleaned the data, identifying gaps in what was provided. Seventeen of the cities or counties did not provide the names of officers involved. New York City provided officer names in only a small percentage of cases. Claims that did not result in lawsuits represent a very small portion of those documented. The Post relied on city and county agencies to provide officer names in those cases and most provided those names. The Post also supplemented its data with other sources. For Chicago, reporters used data compiled by the Chicago Reporter on police settlements from 2011 through 2017 to dnd obcers named in the claims data the city provided to The Post, and then retrieved names in additional cases from 2010 and 2018 through 2020. In Baltimore, officials directed The Post to the city's Board of Estimates website, where reporters downloaded the text of all meeting minutes that mentioned police settlements. The Post compiled a database of cases from that, and looked up cases in the court system to dnd obcers’ names. In New York City, officials did not provide the names of officers involved in more than 30,000 cases; reporters used payment data since 2013 provided on the law department’s website to identify officers, and then retrieved names from pre-2013 claims from court cases. Phoenix was the only city for which The Post was unable to identify the obcers involved. Obcials there did not provide obcer data or enough information for reporters to conddently match claim amounts with court records. In thousands of cases, the city, county or court records identided obcers only as “John Doe,” “Jane Doe” or unknown, and The Post was unable to determine those identities. For the analysis of obcers who were the subject of repeated payments, The Post did not count those claims. However, claims involving the unknown obcers were included in the total claim amounts and counts for each department. For the analysis, The Post also excluded the names of most senior obcials at the departments. Most of the people removed were police chiefs, but a supervisor in the District was omitted from the analysis because he was named in 19 cases related to his police unit but the complaints did not directly involve him. The Post excluded payments of less than $1,000, which helped to standardize data across departments based on variations in what was provided. Reporters also sought to remove internal legal fees from the analysis in the few places, including Portland, Ore., that provided them. All claims were grouped into broader categories for analysis and presentation using the information provided by cities and counties. In cases for which they did not provide categorization, those claims were categorized as “Unclassided Allegations of Misconduct.” The Post reached out to every department and city or county officials who provided the data multiple times for comment. At each department, the three officers or deputies involved in the most settlements were also asked for comment. The Post incorporated any comment from departments and officers on its published interactive. Payments are based on allegations of misconduct by police, but departments rarely admit wrongdoing when resolving these cases. In 2017, the city agreed to settle her claim before it went to trial. (Callaghan O’Hare for The Washington Post) ‘I’ll never forget him’ Gregory Williams, 34, gestures having a gun held to his head by a plainclothes police officer during an interview at Hamilton Law Office in Chicago on Sept. 21. (Taylor Glascock for The Washington Post) The gas station at the intersection of West Madison Street and North Kilbourn Avenue where Gregory Williams, 34, bought cigarettes before he was arrested nearby. (Taylor Glascock for The Washington Post) Officer Armando Ugarte was a subject of 16 payments totaling more than $5 million for claims that included excessive force and wrongful arrests from 2010 through 2020. (Mark Parts) Payment Category Date $4,567,828 Excessive force Jan. 29, 2013 $161,000 Excessive force Feb. 13, 2014 $100,000 Illegal search and seizure Nov. 5, 2019 $88,500 Illegal search and seizure Aug. 9, 2017 $85,000 Excessive force Dec. 9, 2018 $60,001 Illegal search and seizure Nov. 4, 2014 $50,000 Excessive force Sept. 23, 2018 $40,000 False arrest Sept. 30, 2014 $37,500 Illegal search and seizure Sept. 6, 2017 $28,000 Illegal search and seizure June 25, 2018 $18,000 Excessive force May 17, 2011 $10,250 Illegal search and seizure Dec. 9, 2018 $10,000 Excessive force Nov. 24, 2014 $7,500 False arrest Feb. 7, 2013 $5,000 False arrest July 16, 2012 $3,000 False arrest Feb. 7, 2013 Williams and his attorney, Torreya L. Hamilton, outside a courthouse in Chicago in September. (Taylor Glascock for The Washington Post) Poor communication Tony Murray pets his dog, Keno II. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post) Other civil rights claims $38,594,426 Payments under $ Payments under $ 100,000 100,000 Excessive force $8,159,050 False arrest $5,185,025 When police began banging on his door, Murray sent his dog, Keno, to the basement to stay out of the way. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post)