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CHICAGO — Chicago taxpayers shelled out more than $40 million in 2020 for plaintiffs and their attorneys who alleged misconduct against the Chicago Police Department, according to a report published by the city’s law department last week. And early indications show the city’s police-related legal costs have only risen since.
The Chicago Department of Law’s 69-page Report on Chicago Police Department 2020 Litigation comes as the law department faces a shortage of staff and pressure from the City Council to bring more lawsuits to trial, all as the city approaches two full years without a Chief Risk Officer to firm up the city’s protections from legal exposure.
The city settled 90 police-related lawsuits out of court in 2020, resulting in about $20.7 million in payments to plaintiffs and their attorneys. Juries awarded another $19.8 million among two police misconduct cases that made it to trial, the report shows. Another 41 cases made it to trial but were either dismissed or did not end up inducing payments from the city.
The tally represents a decline from 2019, when the city paid about $46.8 million in police-related settlements and judgments, law department records show. And both marked a sharp drop from 2018, when the city spent more than $113 million on police misconduct lawsuits.
City leaders have published the police department litigation reports each year since 2019 in keeping with a requirement of the federal consent decree initiated that year.
But early indications show police department legal costs have shot back up since 2020. An analysis of city data by ABC7 found that the city agreed to pay $67 million in police-related legal costs through August 2021 alone. And the City Council has already approved about $20 million in police-related settlements so far in 2022, putting the police department on pace to surpass the $82 million it budgeted for settlements and judgments this year.
By far the largest payout approved this year was a $14 million settlement to end a lawsuit brought by Corey Batchelor and Kevin Bailey, who served a combined 43 years in prison based on a conviction that was later overturned due to new DNA evidence that exonerated them.
Similarly, the single largest police-related legal cost incurred in 2020 was a $17 million jury award for a wrongful conviction after Jacques Rivera spent 21 years in prison for a murder of which he was allegedly framed by Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara. Various false convictions tied to Guevara have overall cost the city more than $75 million, including a $20.5 million settlement approved by the City Council last September.
But excluding the “outlier” reverse conviction cases, excessive force claims have cost Chicago taxpayers the most, according to the report.
The 133 police-related lawsuits that resulted in trials or settlements in 2020 included 324 separate alleged violations committed by police, including 62 allegations of false arrest, 54 accusations of excessive force and 42 unlawful searches. Of the five costliest settlements the City Council approved in 2020, four were related to allegations of excessive force.
“Excessive Force claims remain a significant source of financial liability for the City,” the report reads. “The City paid $16.4 million in settlement payouts for Excessive Force cases and over a $1 million after a jury trial involving allegations of Excessive Force. The settlement payouts for Excessive Force cases represented 79% of all settlement payouts by the City in 2020.”
City attorneys wrote that it is “difficult or impossible to draw conclusions based on the snapshot of cases included” in the report because of the years-long “lapse in time” between incidents, lawsuits and eventual court decisions. Still, the report ended on a pair of policy recommendations, including that the Chicago Police Department should develop a “data dashboard” to “better understand available risk management data” to guide long-term policy on preventing misconduct lawsuits.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2019 created the position of Chief Risk Officer, saying the office will “identify and mitigate potential threats to the economic viability to our city” like runaway legal costs. But the post has been empty since Chief Risk Officer Tamika Puckett stepped down in October 2020.
City attorneys also recommended in their report for the police department to capitalize on efforts to “reduce the risk” of chase-related crashes by expanding training and tightening its pursuit policies.
“CPD should continue to work toward fully utilizing this process to examine all vehicle pursuits, including those resulting in litigation, to determine the risk factors for liability and potential injury,” the report reads. “CPD has begun partial use of the new vehicle training facility and is looking to expand the physical footprint of the driving course by acquiring adjacent properties.”
A growing contingent of aldermen from police-heavy wards have voted against approving some police misconduct settlements, arguing the city should take some cases to trial to fend of frivolous suits. Many recent settlements have only narrowly cleared the City Council Committee on Finance, and the committee deadlocked on one case last month, sending city attorneys back to the negotiating table.
Corporation Counsel Celia Meza told aldermen during a budget hearing last year that nearly half of the employee positions were vacant in the law department’s civil rights litigation division, which defends against police misconduct lawsuits. But the department has never declined to take a case to trial simply because it lacked staffing power, Meza said.
Related: Hike pay for city lawyers to head off staff shortages, Corporation Counsel tells aldermen
A Washington Post investigation published on Wednesday found that Chicago paid nearly $528 million in police misconduct claims between 2010 and 2020, including more than $380 million tied to officers who were targets of multiple claims.
Asked about the Washington Post report during an unrelated news conference on Wednesday, Lightfoot said her office and police leaders have “made a priority on making sure that we’re doing everything we can to providing much better training,” calling training “key to reducing incidents of actual misconduct that may be alleged or committed by Chicago police officers.
“We’ve also got to make sure we’ve got a system of accountability, [and] that we’re being fair and even-handed with honest mistakes, but we have no tolerance for people who are intentionally engaging in misconduct,” Lightfoot said. “That’s a critical part of what the superintendent and I believe as part of police reform and accountability, [and] it’s also mandated as part of the consent decree.”