How Police Indemnification Can Go Wrong

September 4, 2015
5min read

UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz asked 70 of the United States’ largest police departments to submit information about civil cases against their own officers, throughout the course of writing her NYU Law Review article “Police Indemnification.” Her goal was to find out the extent to which police officers financially contributed to the settlement of cases against themselves, as the Supreme Court has long “assumed that law enforcement officers must personally satisfy settlements and judgments” (885).

Forty-four of the 70 police departments replied, as well as 37 small and mid-sized agencies. Schwartz found that officers are virtually always indemnified, meaning they become exempt from paying for the damages of their misconduct. Even though in many cases it violates the law for governments to indemnify their officers, officers are virtually always indemnified:

During the study period [2006-2011], governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers in my study never satisfied a punitive damages award entered against them and almost never contributed anything to settlements or judgments— even when indemnification was prohibited by law or policy, and even when officers were disciplined, terminated, or prosecuted for their conduct.

That last detail is perhaps the most surprising; Schwartz herself notes that many scholars assume governments who indemnify their officers would refuse to indemnify those punished for misconduct. But this is seldom true. Here are three high-profile cases, identified by Schwartz, in which officers committed egregious misconduct but did not pay a dollar of the verdicts against them:


Take, for example, the civil case brought by sixteen-year-old Juan Vasquez, who was beaten after being chased by three Denver police officers. An officer stomped on the boy’s back while using a fence for leverage, breaking his ribs and causing him to suffer kidney damage and a lacerated liver. Three officers were fired and one was criminally charged with – though acquitted of – first-degree felony assault. The City of Denver paid $885,000 to settle Vasquez’s civil suit. No officer contributed to the settlement.


Another example concerns the case brought by the estate of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Atlanta woman who was shot and killed by Atlanta police officers after they illegally raided her home. Officers involved in the shooting later admitted that they planted marijuana in Johnston’s home after her death and submitted as evidence cocaine that they falsely alleged had been purchased at her home. Three officers pleaded guilty to offenses related to the shooting and coverup. They were sentenced to between five and ten years in federal prison and were ordered to pay $8180 restitution – the cost to bury Johnston. Another nine officers were fired or disciplined, or resigned, following the incident. The City of Atlanta paid $4.9 million to settle the civil suit brought by Johnston’s estate. No officers contributed to the settlement.


A final example concerns the civil case brought by Cynthia Seeley against Albuquerque police officer Christopher Chase. Chase responded to a call for assistance at the apartment of Cynthia Seeley’s girlfriend following a domestic dispute, and then raped Seeley in his patrol car. Chase was criminally indicted for sexually assaulting Seeley; he was additionally charged with sexually assaulting four other women and girls, physically abusing two additional women, and kidnapping or falsely imprisoning five men and boys. Chase was fired from his job and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. In Seeley’s civil case, a jury awarded her $69,880 in compensatory damages and $873,500 in punitive damages against Chase. The case settled after trial for $1,000,000. Chase did not contribute to the settlement.

While these are indeed high-profile cases, they are very much the tip of the iceberg. According to Schwartz’s research, more than 2,000 officers likely received criminal charges in the jurisdictions and timeframe she studied. Yet even if each of the officers who did contribute to settlements were among this number – “and there is no reason to believe this is so” – that accounts for less than 2% of the 2,000.

It’s bad enough for cities to shield abusive officers from liability when criminal charges aren’t involved. For governments to spend taxpayer money indemnifying officers convicted of murder and rape is a new level of unacceptable. Any effort toward criminal justice reform owes it to the victims of these crimes to ensure that officers are held personally liable for their crimes.

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