The discussion around police misconduct and abuse tends to zero in on the cost to human life and dignity. But as certain segments of the civilian population struggle, seemingly, to empathize with the message of movements like Black Lives Matter, maybe a new approach is needed to argue for fundamental police reform.
Even if you are not a minority or have never even had an interaction with the police, you’re probably a taxpayer — and while you might never endure the hit of an officer’s baton, you will certainly feel the hit of police abuse in your wallet.
Police misconduct comes at a hefty cost in the most literal sense of the word. The non-profit journalistic investigation group Better Government Association recently took a look at the financial toll Chicago Police Department officers’ misconduct takes on the city’s taxpayers.
Their findings? In just 2014 and 2015, the city government had to spend $106 million for costs related to police misconduct (legal fees and lawsuit settlements, among other things). Almost $642 million was spent in the decade between 2004 and 2015. Based on the Chicago Police Department’s approximately 12,000 officers, that amounts to nearly $53,000 an officer.
According to Chicago Tribune, 124 Chicago officers were named in one-third of misconduct-related settlements since 2009. Though they represent a relatively small group of officers who repeatedly engage in misconduct — in absolute numbers, it’s still a large group that has been allowed to keep their uniform despite clear patterns of behavior. That’s a problem. Can you think of any other job where you can repeatedly cost your employer thousands, even millions of dollars, without being fired?
Where does the money come to cover all this misconduct, anyway? It comes from taxpayers, of course, who prop up law enforcement and municipal government budgets. As the Wall Street Journal reports, police departments all across the country have been seeing increasingly more of their budgets headed toward misconduct-related expenses. In 2014, the 10 largest police departments in the country paid $248.7 million in such costs.
With local governments in the United States so often finding themselves in dire fiscal straights, it seems ludicrous to permit police departments to hemorrhage such large sums of money, year to year. Why do these organizations keep around these so-called “bad apple” cops? The likely answer can be found in the fraternal, “good ‘ol boys’ club” nature of law enforcement; a highly costly and dysfunctional way to operate a group of gun-wielding public servants.
As cellphone-recorded footage of police abuse becomes commonplace alongside the adoption of officers’ dashboard and body-worn cameras, it seems practically inevitable that most police departments of any size will see misconduct allegations continue to rise.
That’s where the Department of Justice comes in. This week they have announced intentions to begin a collaborative review of the San Francisco Police Department following controversy around the death of Mario Woods. This follows on the heels of two “pattern of practice” probes being done of Chicago and Baltimore’s police forces.
It’s a good start, but only a start nonetheless. If Attorney General Loretta Lynch plans to set herself apart from her predecessor, then she needs have the Justice Department investigate dozens, if not hundreds, of police departments around the country. More importantly, however, Lynch must do so with a heavy hand and the understanding that in some cases drastic personnel restructuring may be necessary.