NEW YORK (AP / CBS 2) – The fiancee and friends of an unarmed man killed in a 50-bullet police shooting on his wedding day said they wanted justice. The legal system gave them money – more than $7 million.

The city did what it has done time and time again: pay.

Nearly $1 billion has been paid over the past decade to resolve claims against the nation’s largest police department, according to an investigation by The Associated Press. Some smaller departments also shell out tens of millions a year in payouts, but New York’s spending on police claims dwarfs that of any other U.S. city.

Taxpayers foot the bill – New York officials say the payments cost less than insurance would, and officers themselves don’t usually bear personal responsibility.

The $964 million in payouts covers everything from brutality cases to patrol-car wrecks to stationhouse accidents, and it includes settlements and trial awards. Some police officers have been sued again and again – including one officer at least seven times on excessive force and brutality claims. Some law firms have made it their primary business to sue the city.

City lawyers call the payouts a hard-fought cost of policing a metropolis of 8.3 million people – a price officials work to minimize through officer training and discipline. And the city has prevailed in thousands of cases, including some deadly shootings.

“We’re not pushovers,” said Fay Leoussis, one of the city’s chief lawyers.

But the city is literally paying for police mistakes without learning from them, critics say. In cases like the 50-bullet shooting, the city pays even when officers are acquitted of criminal charges and don’t admit wrongdoing.

“Right now it’s open season against the city. Just file a lawsuit, and you’re going to get money,” said City Council member Peter Vallone, who has sponsored a bill he hopes will make it impossible to pay out dubious claims. “Everyone makes out – except the taxpayer.”

Lawsuits against police are inevitable, some experts say – police interact with millions of citizens a year, confronting criminal suspects and the mentally ill, as well as the angry, opportunistic and litigious. A 2005 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that 90 percent of people say officers act properly, but other studies estimate about 30,000 lawsuits are filed against them a year.

To some who have sued and won, payouts don’t amount to true compensation.

“You can sue New York City, but it’s not really justifying what happened,” says Charles Shepherd, who spent about 14 years in prison on a murder conviction that hinged on the testimony of a witness who eventually admitted she’d lied; another man later confessed to the crime.

Shepherd settled in 2005 for $370,000 from the city and $1.65 million from the state.

“The city feels they can give you X amount of money” to make up for injustice, said Shepherd, 45, now a counselor for children with HIV. “It’s not fair whatsoever.”

Comparing cities’ payouts is complicated because of differences in record-keeping, the time frames of data available and the fact that the 35,000-officer NYPD is more than twice as big as any other U.S. police department.

But some rough comparisons can be made, using recent data several cities provided to the AP.

Chicago, with about a third of New York’s population, paid out an average of $39.1 million a year over the past six fiscal years; New York paid $96.4 million a year on average from 1999 to 2008, the most recent years available.

Chicago’s figures include a nearly $21 million payment in 2008 to a driver paralyzed when police slammed into his car while chasing someone else.

In Los Angeles, with less than half New York’s population, police paid an average of nearly $21.4 million a year in the past seven fiscal years.

Philadelphia, with less than a fifth of New York’s population, spent only about one-tenth as much as New York in payouts, averaging $9.2 million a year on payouts from 2005 to 2009. Philadelphia police track “problem” officers but through internal investigations, not lawsuits.

New York’s data don’t detail the nature of the police cases. But research into just some of the biggest payouts shows car accidents alone cost more than $30 million in those 10 years. Some multimillion-dollar settlements have gone to officers themselves for on-the-job injuries.

More than $23 million was spent to compensate for police bullets or brutality, millions more to settle claims of unjustified arrests and wrongful convictions.

Some officers are sued multiple times: In the past three years, one Brooklyn precinct sergeant has been sued at least seven times on excessive force and brutality claims, costing the city at least $188,250. A narcotics detective was the target of at least six suits that spurred $103,000 in payouts. The city has paid $171,500 to settle four suits against one plainclothes detective; another case against him is pending.

The city did not admit wrongdoing. Two of the officers are still on the force; one retired. None was charged criminally or disciplined, though the sergeant was later monitored for use of force.

Most departments don’t do much, if anything, with information from lawsuits; to them, if no wrongdoing is admitted, why bother tracking the cases?

But some experts believe mining the cases could lead to fewer suits.

Even if (officials) tracked the information just to decrease liability, isn’t that a good idea?” said Cynthia Conti-Cook of Stoll, Glickman and Bellina, a Brooklyn firm that has sued officers.

Last year, Vallone proposed tracking the city’s settlements to ensure it pays out only when liable and learns from the cases it does pay. The NYPD assigned a committee to look at the more costly payouts for evidence of perjury, corruption and other wrongdoing.

City lawyers say they do weigh claims with an eye on potential costs.

“Even though the facts may all be pointing to a justification of what you did, and no liability, if it’s going to a jury, then it’s always a question,” Leoussis said of the city law department. “You can’t afford to take that kind of risk.”

The nearly $7.2 million settlement in the Sean Bell case was the city’s largest settlement ever in a fatal police shooting.

Three officers opened fire on a car carrying the unarmed Bell, 23, and two friends. The officers said they thought the men were armed, and the men had ignored orders to stop. Bell died in a hail of 50 bullets around the corner from a Queens topless bar where he had just had a bachelor party.

The officers were acquitted of manslaughter in the 2006 shooting in state court; federal prosecutors declined to charge them with civil rights crimes.

The shooting led to police reforms ranging from added firearms training to rule changes for undercover work. The officers still face disciplinary proceedings that could cost them their jobs.

Bell’s friend Joseph Guzman, shot 17 times, ended up with $3 million.

But, he said, “nobody wins in this.”

New York’s top 10 payouts on claims against police, for the decade ending June 30, 2008:
 – Franklyn Waldron: $8 million to a man shot and paralyzed by a police officer.
 – Abner Louima: $7.125 million to a man brutally attacked by officers in a police station.
 – Kiros Berhe: $4.25 million to a man hit by a squad car.
 – Sueli Pereira: $3.5 million to a woman who lost a leg after a school safety officer’s car hit her.
 – Sami Leka: $3.1 million to a man who spent more than 11 years in prison before his murder conviction was overturned and prosecutors dropped charges.
 – Salimata Sanfo: $3 million to a woman whose husband, Ousmane Zongo, was shot and killed by a police officer during a storage warehouse raid.
 – Joseph Coviello: $2.75 million to a police officer hurt in a collision between two patrol cars.
 – Carol Ann Jones: $2.5 million to a woman whose knee was fractured when a police car hit her.
 – Richard Bolds: $2.25 million to a man hurt in an encounter with police.
 – Family of Patrick Dorismond: $2.25 million to the family of an unarmed security guard shot dead during a scuffle with an undercover detective.

Several major payouts have been approved since July 2008. Among them:
 – Barry Gibbs: $9.9 million to a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 19 years behind bars after a police detective framed him.
 – Estate of Sean Bell: $3.25 million to the family of an unarmed man shot dead by police on his wedding day. Separately, the city paid a total of $3.9 million to two of Bell’s friends who were wounded in the 50-bullet police barrage.
 – Wilson Ramos: $6 million to a bystander who was shot in the head and partially paralyzed by police who were in a gunfight with a suspect.

Sources: New York City Comptroller’s Office, New York City Law Department, court records, news accounts.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

Mary Calvi

Comments (6)
  1. Eric M says:

    There ought to be limits on how much taxpayer money can be doled out for a lawsuit. If the sky is the limit, then the taxpayers will continue to be the ultimate victims in each case.

  2. Mike says:

    Sean Bell and his cronies were nothing more than drug dealing violent criminals. The police acted correctly, were exonerated criminally and a federal judge refused to file civil charges against the officers because the officers acted properly and in good faith. The fact these people received any compensation at all from the city is atrocious.

  3. Ms. Diva says:

    I cannot believe the comments! In the case of Abner Louima, this man was sodomized by police in the policestation with a plunger handle and you don’t think that his settlement was justified? What about people who spend years and years in prison for a crime they did not commit? You don’t think they are owed something?? For years and still to this day, law enforcement has used their badges to assert astronomical amounts of power they don’t deserve! They are no more special than the average human being! YES, they risk their lives everyday in order to COLLECT A PAYCHECK but fact of the matter is, they decided to be in this field and just because they wear a uniform or carry a gun, doesn’t give them the right to be above the law themselves! Grow the hell up, because if you or someone in your family was wronged in the way these people were wronged, you would be contacting a lawyer too! Hell, you can’t even get your car hit by a regular citizen and you’re ready to call your insurance company! You guys are not fooling anyone with your asinine comments!

    1. jim says:

      DIVA, I could not agree with you more. One man spent 13 years in prison because a cop set him up. I sure hope that pig went to jail behind that. Each and everyone of these men deserve what they got and more. The idiots who posted those comments are probably copos off duty.

  4. jimbo says:

    What do you expect. Ray Kelly throws his officers to the wolves every cance he gets to make himself look good for the likes of Al Sharpton and Sanford Rudenstien. This opens the door to every lawyer looking for a few bucks and national media attention. Then look on the right side of that picture it’s Joanne “Bruiser” Jaffe who has been sued numerous times by subordinates for discrimination and assault, where the city paid off.

  5. pat says:

    Only in AMMERIKKA for every criminal there is “CHEAP LAWYER” right behind them to make sure they terrorize and victimize society again and again. This is why TORT REFORM is needied and then again a CAP limit on lawyer fees needs to be imposed.

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