When cities settle cases of inappropriate or illegal force by police officers, they pay — a lot. Chicago alone has paid out more than half a billion dollars since 2004.
Yet some advocates say all those payouts haven't had much of an effect on policing practices.
In Minneapolis, longtime activist Michelle Gross says when cities pay damages, individual police officers often aren't held accountable, which means they're not likely to change their behavior. That's why she and a group calling itself the Committee for Professional Policing are now pushing a completely different approach.
"We are working to get a measure on the ballot that would require police officers to carry professional liability insurance," she says.
Some officers already carry liability insurance, on a voluntary basis. Gross' group wants to make it a condition of employment in Minneapolis. Their proposal would have the city cover the cost of basic insurance, but any premium increases due to misconduct would be the officer's responsibility.
Dave Bicking, also a member of the ballot campaign, says the beauty of this scheme is that bad cops would pay more; the worse the track record, the more expensive the premium.
"We have one officer [in Minneapolis] who's had five significant settlements against him just in a year and a half," Bicking says. "Someone like that could never, ever buy insurance. They'd have to charge him $60-$70,000 a year. That officer would be gone."
The plan has a simple appeal. But police call it simplistic.
"I always equate police work to, like, basketball. If you're not getting any fouls, you're not playing hard enough," says Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.
He says if cops have to start worrying about insurance rates, they're liable to become overly cautious.
"Anybody can get in the squad car and drive around and put the blinders on, and not investigate suspicious circumstances," he says. "If you don't do that proactive police work, your likelihood of being sued is a lot less."
Even some of those hoping for change in police practices see a problem there. "I'd have to see what it is that they're going to use to determine what's going to increase that premium," says Michael Quinn, a retired Minneapolis officer, who wrote a book about misconduct and now teaches police ethics. He's not sure insurance companies should be the ones evaluating an officer's performance. "I don't trust the system to do that right."
Still, he sympathizes with the activists' goal, because he believes the current system isn't working. Quinn says the beneficial feedback that's supposed to happen after a lawsuit — when the officer is disciplined or gets a lecture — just isn't happening enough.
"I think the poor management and the lack of the supervision is what's leading to this stuff," he says. "The cops aren't being held accountable, the supervisors aren't holding them accountable, and we're going to continue to have this money being paid out."
Police unions in Minneapolis and other cities say part of the problem is that city councils are too quick to pay damages, even on frivolous complaints, just to save money on litigation. They'd like to see cities taking more plaintiffs to court, which — they believe — would decrease the number of brutality complaints and paint a more positive picture of police conduct.
University of Chicago Law assistant professor John Rappaport has been studying the question of how and why cities pay out damages on behalf of their police. He says there's often a disconnect between payouts and accountability.
"We're very much stuck in a rut, with American policing," he says. He has been investigating whether cities that pay damages out of their own funds — cities such as Minneapolis and Chicago — are less likely to hold officers accountable than cities that have liability insurance.
Rappaport hasn't looked at the question of whether a requirement of individual policies would affect police behavior, largely because he knows of no police department that requires it. He has doubts about whether it would work — for one thing, he doesn't think premiums would really go up enough to discourage bad behavior.
But Rappaport says he "loves" the fact that the Minneapolis activists are proposing this.
"This moment is really causing people to be interested in shaking things up," he says. "I don't know whether this is the right answer or not ... but we won't ever know until someone tries it and we get a chance to see how it works."
The Committee for Professional Policing has until July 5 to collect signatures — at last count, it was within 509 valid signatures of the number required, according to the Minneapolis City Clerk.
If the committee collects enough, it will then be up to the City Council to decide whether the proposal is legal (the police union argues it's not legal under state law). If the council approves it, it will be on the ballot this fall.