By Colleen Long and Jennifer Peltz
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The fiancee and friends of an unarmed man killed in a 50-bullet police shooting on his wedding day said they wanted justice. The legal system gave them money — more than $7 million.
The city did what it has done time and time again: pay.
Nearly $1 billion has been paid over the past decade to resolve claims against the nation's largest police department, according to an investigation by The Associated Press. Some smaller departments also shell out tens of millions a year in payouts, but New York's spending on police claims dwarfs that of any other U.S. city.
Taxpayers foot the bill — New York officials say the payments cost less than insurance would, and officers themselves don't usually bear personal responsibility.
The $964 million in payouts covers everything from brutality cases to patrol-car wrecks to stationhouse accidents, and it includes settlements and trial awards. Some police officers have been sued again and again — including one officer at least seven times on excessive force and brutality claims. Some law firms have made it their primary business to sue the city.
City lawyers call the payouts a hard-fought cost of policing a metropolis of 8.3 million people — a price officials work to minimize through officer training and discipline. And the city has prevailed in thousands of cases, including some deadly shootings.
"We're not pushovers," said Fay Leoussis, one of the city's chief lawyers.
But the city is literally paying for police mistakes without learning from them, critics say. In cases like the 50-bullet shooting, the city pays even when officers are acquitted of criminal charges and don't admit wrongdoing.
"Right now it's open season against the city. Just file a lawsuit, and you're going to get money," said City Council member Peter Vallone, who has sponsored a bill he hopes will make it impossible to pay out dubious claims. "Everyone makes out — except the taxpayer."
Lawsuits against police are inevitable, some experts say — police interact with millions of citizens a year, confronting criminal suspects and the mentally ill, as well as the angry, opportunistic and litigious. A 2005 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that 90 percent of people say officers act properly, but other studies estimate about 30,000 lawsuits are filed against them a year.
To some who have sued and won, payouts don't amount to true compensation.
"You can sue New York City, but it's not really justifying what happened," says Charles Shepherd, who spent about 14 years in prison on a murder conviction that hinged on the testimony of a witness who eventually admitted she'd lied; another man later confessed to the crime.
Shepherd settled in 2005 for $370,000 from the city and $1.65 million from the state.
"The city feels they can give you X amount of money" to make up for injustice, said Shepherd, 45, now a counselor for children with HIV. "It's not fair whatsoever."
Comparing cities' payouts is complicated because of differences in record-keeping, the time frames of data available and the fact that the 35,000-officer NYPD is more than twice as big as any other U.S. police department.
But some rough comparisons can be made, using recent data several cities provided to the AP.
Chicago, with about a third of New York's population, paid out an average of $39.1 million a year over the past six fiscal years; New York paid $96.4 million a year on average from 1999 to 2008, the most recent years available.
Chicago's figures include a nearly $21 million payment in 2008 to a driver paralyzed when police slammed into his car while chasing someone else.
In Los Angeles, with less than half New York's population, police paid an average of nearly $21.4 million a year in the past seven fiscal years.
Philadelphia, with less than a fifth of New York's population, spent only about one-tenth as much as New York in payouts, averaging $9.2 million a year on payouts from 2005 to 2009. Philadelphia police track "problem" officers but through internal investigations, not lawsuits.
New York's data don't detail the nature of the police cases. But research into just some of the biggest payouts shows car accidents alone cost more than $30 million in those 10 years. Some multimillion-dollar settlements have gone to officers themselves for on-the-job injuries.
More than $23 million was spent to compensate for police bullets or brutality, millions more to settle claims of unjustified arrests and wrongful convictions.
Some officers are sued multiple times: In the past three years, one Brooklyn precinct sergeant has been sued at least seven times on excessive force and brutality claims, costing the city at least $188,250. A narcotics detective was the target of at least six suits that spurred $103,000 in payouts. The city has paid $171,500 to settle four suits against one plainclothes detective; another case against him is pending.
The city did not admit wrongdoing. Two of the officers are still on the force; one retired. None was charged criminally or disciplined, though the sergeant was later monitored for use of force.
Most departments don't do much, if anything, with information from lawsuits; to them, if no wrongdoing is admitted, why bother tracking the cases?
But some experts believe mining the cases could lead to fewer suits.
"Even if (officials) tracked the information just to decrease liability, isn't that a good idea?" said Cynthia Conti-Cook of Stoll, Glickman and Bellina, a Brooklyn firm that has sued officers.
Last year, Vallone proposed tracking the city's settlements to ensure it pays out only when liable and learns from the cases it does pay. The NYPD assigned a committee to look at the more costly payouts for evidence of perjury, corruption and other wrongdoing.
City lawyers say they do weigh claims with an eye on potential costs.
"Even though the facts may all be pointing to a justification of what you did, and no liability, if it's going to a jury, then it's always a question," Leoussis said of the city law department. "You can't afford to take that kind of risk."
The nearly $7.2 million settlement in the Sean Bell case was the city's largest settlement ever in a fatal police shooting.
Three officers opened fire on a car carrying the unarmed Bell, 23, and two friends. The officers said they thought the men were armed, and the men had ignored orders to stop. Bell died in a hail of 50 bullets around the corner from a Queens topless bar where he had just had a bachelor party.
The officers were acquitted of manslaughter in the 2006 shooting in state court; federal prosecutors declined to charge them with civil rights crimes.
The shooting led to police reforms ranging from added firearms training to rule changes for undercover work. The officers still face disciplinary proceedings that could cost them their jobs.
Bell's friend Joseph Guzman, shot 17 times, ended up with $3 million.
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But, he said, "nobody wins in this."