2022 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom winner

Police Misconduct

About the Project

Unlike cases that make headlines, such as the $27 million Minneapolis paid to the family of George Floyd or the $12 million paid to Breonna Taylor’s family, most claims of police misconduct are resolved quietly and with smaller sums. Cities say payments to resolve misconduct allegations, ranging from excessive force to illegal search and seizure, are more cost-effective than fighting lawsuits in court. These settlements rarely involve admissions of wrongdoing.

How much cities pay — and who the officers are — is generally hidden from the public, whose taxes often cover these costs.

To shed some light on the process, Washington Post reporters Steven Rich, Keith Alexander and Hannah Thacker spent more than a year filing public records requests and combing through court documents to connect nearly 40,000 payments to specific officers.

Here’s what they discovered:
• Payments for police misconduct are costly.
In total, 25 of the largest police and sheriff’s departments spent more than $3.2 billion to resolve claims of police misconduct over the past 10 years.

• These claims often involve officers with multiple allegations
Nearly half of the total spent to resolve claims — $1.5 billion — involved officers with multiple allegations of misconduct. More than 7,600 officers — from Portland, Ore., to Milwaukee to Baltimore — had alleged misconduct claims that more than once led to payments to resolve lawsuits and claims of wrongdoing. More than 1,200 officers in the departments investigated had been the subject of at least five payments. More than 200 had 10 or more. 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.

• Cities have an incentive not to track the names of officers accused of misconduct
Few cities or counties track the names of the officers involved in claims. This means officials — and the public — may be unaware of officers whose alleged misconduct is repeatedly costing taxpayers.
Legal and policing experts said there are disincentives to such tracking. Cities can be accused of “negligent retention” if an officer is facing multiple lawsuits, they said. Defense attorneys could also use the information to challenge an officer’s credibility in a criminal case.

• Police defended their work and expressed concern that cities settled dubious claims
Settlements rarely involve an admission or finding of wrongdoing by officers. Because of this, there is no reason to hold officers accountable for the claims, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police labor union.

Some officers we interviewed were upset that the city officials settled the cases and instead wished the cities had fought the allegations in court. “We are not the bad guys these lawsuits paint us to be,” said Gerald Cofield, one retired Boston police officer.

Other officers suggested that people made up claims to get payments. In Detroit, an officer said they call such payments the “Detroit lottery.”

Judges Comments

A major effort in collection of data and the creation of a very user-friendly database. It’s clear that this is just the beginning of what could be investigated on this topic and, because of this project, other journalists are empowered to do just that in their local jurisdictions.