After successfully representing a client whose family member suffered extreme violence at the hands of the police, I was approached by a family friend who asked why I would sue a police officer, putting at risk the finances of the officer and the entire city.
How a civil rights suit plays out
“That’s not what happens,” I explained.
“Really.” Said my friend, only half hiding their suspicion that I was trying to pull one over on them.
“Really,” I said. “Insurance pays for everything. Cities have insurance just like you and me. They use it to make sure that when an officer acts recklessly, uses too much force, unjustly kills someone, or otherwise violates someone’s civil rights, the officer doesn’t pay out of his own pocket. He or she typically never has to pay for anything – which is not what happens to the victims of civil rights abuses. The cities typically make it a rule or policy to protect, or indemnify, the officer from the financial costs of the suit.”
“Does that happen in every case?” my friend asked.
“99.99% of the time, yes,” I surmised. “In very, very rare cases, an officer does something so horrendous that the available insurance (which is almost always in the millions of dollars) is not enough to compensate a victim of Civil Rights abuses. When that happens, everyone knows about it because the verdicts are huge, the cop is usually on the front page for being prosecuted as a criminal -- before being sued by the family -- and everyone is usually relieved that the officer got what he or she deserved when the facts were revealed.”
“Well, that’s a little comforting,” my friend conceded. “I don’t like bad cops. No one does. But after a case was brought against an officer in my city, I thought I was going to lose city services, like trash pick-up. The jury awarded the victim a million dollars.”
“You’d never lose city services due to a lawsuit,” I assured her. “Today, no city government I can think of operates without a safety net in place to make sure that they won’t have to board up city hall if a bad cop gets sued.”
I also gave her this to think about: According to Human Rights Watch, “Officers themselves do not have to pay personally in civil lawsuits; the city almost always [covers] the officer and pays. In the rare case in which the city has not covered the officer, the PBA [Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, a police officers' union] has done so.”**
**Human Rights Watch, Shielded From Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability In The United States: New York: Civil Lawsuits (1998).