Apr 3, 2024 - News

How settlements are negotiated

Photo illustration of a Columbus police cruiser with lines emanating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Allegations of law enforcement misconduct are nothing new in American history, OSU urban sociologist and associate professor Townsand Price-Spratlen tells Axios.

But a formal remedy via the judicial system has become more common since 1978 as people sue police departments in civil court via the federal statute Section 1983 by claiming their civil rights were violated.

  • He says it's a sign of societal progress compared to complaints of police brutality that "would have, in previous generations, never seen the light of day."

Inside the room: Speaks, the Department of Public Safety's deputy director, explained Columbus' settlement negotiation process to us.

By the numbers: Between 2018-2023, there were 282 closed legal matters involving Speaks' department, though not all were related to police conduct.

  • Fewer than 20% ended in settlements, per figures provided by Speaks. The rest went through a trial process or were voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs.

Between the lines: Speaks says he balances the city's interests with those of the plaintiffs when deciding which cases to settle.

  • A settlement does not necessarily mean the city acknowledges wrongdoing, though Speaks says it's generally important the city make "reasonable amends" when police mistakes are made.
  • Negotiating a settlement greatly mitigates the financial risk of going to trial.
  • If the plaintiff prevails at trial, Columbus is automatically obligated to pay costly court fees, plus potential awards and damages.

Follow the money: Columbus does not have police liability insurance, so settlements are paid out from the city's $1.2 billion general fund, which comes primarily through income and property taxes.

  • Insurance companies view large cities like Columbus as "uninsurable" because of police department size and "volume of interactions," Speaks says.

Zoom out: Columbus is not alone in reckoning with pricey police settlements.

  • For example, Denver paid out millions to 2020 racial justice protesters, and Salt Lake City-area communities big and small have resolved police misconduct complaints for years.
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