Oct 20, 2023 - News

Exclusive: Salt Lake County cities paid millions to resolve police misconduct lawsuits

Amount Salt Lake County cities paid in police settlements and jury awards
Data: Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Murray, Salt Lake City, Sandy, South Jordan, West Jordan, West Valley City and Census Bureau; Table: Axios Visuals

Eight cities in Salt Lake County collectively spent about $13.2 million in civil rights settlements and jury awards to resolve complaints made against their police departments between 2012 and 2022, an Axios analysis shows.

State of play: Axios Salt Lake City partnered with the Utah Investigative Journalism Project to gather years of settlement documents and legal fees through numerous public records requests.

  • We obtained data from some of the largest cities in the county: Salt Lake City, West Valley City, West Jordan, South Jordan, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Murray and Sandy.

Why it matters: The burden ultimately falls to taxpayers. Even when police departments are insured for legal claims, the settlements collectively ratchet up insurance costs.

Our analysis of the data found the following:

  • Between 2012 and 2022, Salt Lake City spent nearly $4.4 million in payouts; Cottonwood Heights paid $4.1 million; and West Valley City paid $3 million.
  • Meanwhile, the cities collectively spent at least another $5.3 million in attorney fees to defend against civil rights cases, some of which are ongoing.
  • Of more than 60 settlements we reviewed, the vast majority involved payments of less than $100,000.
  • Three plaintiffs received more than $1 million.

Of note: Data for this report took almost six months to collect and was not consistently documented across departments.

  • Unified Police, the largest law enforcement agency in the county, took nearly four months to provide records — and when it did, civil rights case payments were lumped together with other settlements, making it difficult to parse out what it paid to settle civil rights cases.

The big picture: Police settlements have risen nationwide since the 2020 protests over the death of George Floyd, CBS reported last month. However, misconduct settlements have been a multi-million dollar issue for police departments for years.

  • A 2022 Washington Post investigation found the country's 25 largest departments racked up more than $1 billion in settlements during the previous decade.
  • Philadelphia, the fourth-largest police department in the U.S., paid nearly $21 million last fiscal year to settle police misconduct claims.

Yes, but: It's difficult to judge the severity of abuses within a police department through settlements alone, Joanna Schwartz, a UCLA law professor who researches police misconduct litigation, told Axios.

  • Settlements are not necessarily an acknowledgment of wrongdoing or guilt and are often driven by a desire to avoid expensive litigation.
  • Plaintiffs may require robust resources to mount a successful case, thanks to the high legal bar to sue police.
  • Qualified immunity — a legal doctrine that protects government employees from lawsuits unless they violate a clearly established constitutional right — blocks many complaints, said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah.

Between the lines: Most law enforcement agencies across the country don't gather and analyze information about lawsuits brought against them, or assess what lessons they can learn from settlements and judgments, Schwartz said.

  • "Our settlement numbers are typically quite low, given the size of our agency," the Salt Lake City Police Department said in a written statement.
  • The other municipalities we reached out to did not respond to our requests for comment or declined to comment.

Details: Even when a settlement is reached, officers and police departments are rarely on the hook, Schwartz said.

  • "In most jurisdictions, there's never any danger that the police department's budget is going to be affected at all," she said.

The bottom line: While lawsuits are often the only recourse a victim of police misconduct has, criminal justice experts say they generally don't influence police behavior, CBS reported.

  • Many settlements involve officers who have been repeatedly accused of misconduct, the Post investigation found.

What we're watching: Insurers could begin taking more aggressive action when a department shows a pattern of preventable payouts.

  • "Insurers actually can have a greater incentive and more leverage than local governments to demand that police officers and departments change their conduct, because they don't have any of the political considerations that a city council would," Schwartz said. "They have just pure financial interests in reducing claims."

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project's Eric S. Peterson contributed to this report.

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