The total payout for injuries caused by police in New York City was a staggering $308.2 million in 2017. Since 2004, Chicago has paid out over $500 million for police misconduct. While these numbers are markedly higher than you’ll find in most cities, one theme is constant: taxpayers are the ones who are shelling out the funds to settle with plaintiffs.
Overall, 99.98 percent of payouts to plaintiffs injured by police officers are covered by the departments rather than the officers themselves.
This trend has caused some to explore the idea of having police officers carry liability insurance so that the taxpayers aren’t liable for the harm they cause while on the job and so that, hopefully, police departments will see a change in behavior.
Minneapolis made the attempt to force a change in 2016. Citizens banded together to call for a ballot question that would require individual officers to carry liability insurance. Ultimately, their state’s supreme court struck down the measure because it was in direct conflict with their constitution. However, that doesn’t prohibit state lawmakers from altering it.
Many oppose this growing effort, arguing that officers have to make split-second decisions and, by human nature, will sometimes make the wrong decision. They say that requiring personal insurance will make them think twice before acting, which could prove dangerous for them. But other professionals, such as doctors and some lawyers, carry liability insurance and, just as cops, a wrong decision by a doctor can lead to severe bodily harm or even death. Should cops be held to a lower standard than doctors?
There is also the argument that saddling officers, many of whom make a modest salary, with an added cost will be too much of a burden. But there may be a solution to that.
Clark Neily of the Cato Institute proposed allotting the taxpayer funds, “Being used to pay damage awards for misbehaving cops — $308 million in payouts last year divided by 34,000 uniformed NYPD officers equals nearly $10,000 per cop – and use it to give them an insurance allowance.” When officers who carry a higher risk face increased premiums, they can cover that difference themselves. “Private liability insurance provides an extremely powerful tool for distinguishing between the best and worst cops. The time has come to use it,” he further stated.
While officers and departments are quick to defend their own, if they had to carry liability insurance, those who carried a higher risk would have higher premiums – which as Neily suggested, they would cover the difference for out-of-pocket.
If that isn’t enough to act as a risk deterrent, multiple settlements or incidents leading to increased premiums could make the officer uninsurable. Being uninsurable would then make them unemployable.
Some officers are voluntarily moving in this direction.
According to the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, officers have already begun a trend of voluntarily purchasing professional liability insurance policies.
Between 2014 and 2015, the union saw individual insurance purchases up 15 percent from the 1 to 3 percent they typically see annually. As the national conversation over accountability and scrutiny of policing persists, officers are taking notice, and exploring opportunities to protect themselves.
The bottom line is that as taxpayers pay for these settlements, there will be little change in behavior. There is little personal accountability or responsibility to be had when internal punishments are lenient and there is no cost to an individual officer.