Dec 13, 2022 - News

Philadelphia police misconduct payouts on the rise

Philadelphia police total spending on Civil Rights Unit misconduct settlements
Data: City of Philadelphia; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

Philadelphia, home to the nation's fourth-largest police department, spent nearly $21 million to settle police misconduct claims last fiscal year.

  • That's just slightly under the highest annual total reported in recent years, according to city data.

Driving the news: Settling misconduct claims has cost Philadelphia almost $116 million since fiscal year 2016, an Axios analysis found.

Why it matters: Advocates say billions of dollars used to settle claims in U.S. cities are diverted away from programs that could benefit residents.

  • The details of payouts don't often come to light, as many are shielded by confidentiality agreements. But a number of them, experts say, involve the same officers accused of wrongdoing.
  • An analysis by the Washington Post this year found six Philadelphia officers from a narcotics unit were responsible for 176 lawsuits since 2010, costing a total of $6.5 million.

State of play: More than 900 claims were filed against city police between FY 2016-22.

  • Excessive force, false arrest, illegal searches and malicious prosecution were among the most common, city spokesperson Kevin Lessard told Axios.
  • A recent City Controller report found that Police Department settlements have accounted for nearly 40% of the city's $297 million in litigation and settlement expenses since FY 2017.

Of note: The city pays settlements out of an indemnities fund, not the police department's $788 million budget.

Between the lines: Many of Philly's recent big-figure settlements are from wrongfully convicted people who alleged misconduct dating back decades.

  • Others stem from police shootings, such as Dennis Plowden Jr., a 25-year-old who was shot and killed by an officer following a high-speed chase in Germantown in 2017.
  • The city settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Plowden's widow for $1.2 million last year. The officer, Eric Ruch Jr., was sentenced for voluntary manslaughter in the shooting last month.

What they're saying: UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, who studies police misconduct litigation, said there's a "notion that courthouses are filled to the brim with frivolous cases," but she found some in the Philly area were dismissed despite "evidence of constitutional violations."

  • Legal protections like qualified immunity, which has been used to shield officers from lawsuits alleging excessive force, and settlements that include language in which cities deny wrongdoing make it harder for future litigants to argue violations are patterned and prolific, Schwartz said.

Civil rights attorney Amelia Green helped secure two of the city's largest settlements — $9.85 million and $9.8 million — for Anthony Wright and Chester Hollman III. They're among dozens who had convictions overturned in recent years because of police misconduct.

  • Green told Axios that Wright's case was one of the "rare" ones in which officers faced prosecution for misconduct because of a flawed police disciplinary and internal affairs system.
  • "The police department needs to take a good look at itself," Green said.

The other side: Lessard said Mayor Jim Kenney's administration enacted disciplinary reforms in 2021 after the latest round of police contract negotiations, but it'll take time to determine whether they're helping reduce misconduct cases.

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