Police misconduct settlements in New York City last year were driven to their highest level since 2018 by six payouts over $10 million, including one for Muhammad A. Aziz, whose conviction in the assassination of Malcolm X was thrown out after he spent two decades in prison.
Those cases, with a total value of about $73 million, accounted for about 60 percent of the settlements the Police Department paid last year, according to an analysis of city data released on Tuesday by the Legal Aid Society, New York’s largest provider of criminal and civil services for indigent clients.
The $121 million in payouts last year was up from about $85 million in 2021.
“In recent years, district attorneys have moved to vacate many more criminal cases going back dozens of years which have led to an increase in the number of reverse conviction suits and related payouts,” said Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s law department.
The city is “promptly reviewing” cases to keep litigation costs down and to provide a measure of justice to those who were wrongfully convicted, Mr. Paolucci added.
The increase in payouts can also partially be attributed to lawsuits filed following Black Lives Matter protests in the 2020, said Jennvine Wong, a Legal Aid staff attorney with the organization’s Cop Accountability Project.
A Police Department at a Critical Moment
The New York Police Department is facing challenges on several fronts.
- A Botched Prosecution: The perjury trial of a former detective was meant to shine a spotlight on police misconduct. Instead, it will be remembered as a highly public case of wrongdoing by prosecutors.
- Looking Abroad: The trial of Abdullah el-Faisal provided a window into how the Police Department’s secretive Intelligence Bureau, which has faced controversy over the years, pursued an international figure.
- Deborah Danner Shooting: A year after an administrative trial, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell is still weighing whether to fire Sgt. Hugh Barry, who killed a mentally ill woman in her Bronx bedroom in 2016.
- No Threat: Federal authorities dropped a case that accused an officer of acting as an illegal agent for China. They had originally claimed he was keeping tabs on Tibetans in the city, and called him an “insider threat.”
Last year, the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, the oversight body that examines police misconduct, recommended that 145 city police officers should be disciplined for misconduct during the demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis after his neck was pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, in 2020.
During the weeks of protest, police officers and demonstrators clashed throughout the city, resulting in injuries and hundreds of arrests. The oversight body found evidence that supported 267 accusations of misconduct against the officers, recommending the highest level of discipline for about 60 percent of them.
Even outside the lawsuits that stemmed from the protests, the Police Department’s settlement amounts are “astronomically high,” Ms. Wong said.
“They make the payouts, they settled the lawsuits, but then they don’t pursue discipline,” she said.
Police departments throughout the country have money set aside to settle civil lawsuits and often pay settlements to avoid lengthy litigation, said Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Settling a lawsuit for police misconduct doesn’t mean that a department will punish officers, she said, adding that a payout “has no correlation to internal discipline.”
For the New York Police Department, a settlement “does not signify immediately, automatically that the officer needs to be brought on disciplinary charges,” she said.
When there are internal charges filed over a police officer’s conduct, administrative trials can take months to years to be decided.
“The systemic lack of police accountability for officers who kill and abuse people is a decades-old problem,” said Yul-san Liem, a representative of the Justice Committee, an organization that works with families in New York City whose relatives have been killed by police officers.
“All of those families have actively been campaigning and calling for the officers who killed their loved ones to be fired and that still hasn’t happened,” she said.
A spokesman for the Police Department said the “decision to settle a lawsuit and for how much remains with the Law Department and the Comptroller. ”
The president of the Police Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, said that the annual totals of settlements are “not a fair or accurate measure” of how police officers have performed in a given year.
“The city routinely settles cases in which police officers have done nothing wrong, and some of the largest payouts arise from decades-old cases that don’t involve a single cop who is still on the job today,” he said.
The data on misconduct payouts released by the city’s Law Department this week doesn’t account for all police settlements in 2022. All told, the city paid nearly $184 million, primarily for personal injuries, but also property damage, according to the Comptroller’s office.
The average settlement totals for lawsuits have also gone up since 2018, according to Legal Aid’s analysis. In both 2020 and 2021, only one settlement topped $10 million, while there were no payments over that amount in the two prior years.
In the past three decades, New York State has also had the third-most people exonerated in the country at 319, behind Illinois at 556 and Texas at 437. The average payouts for those exonerated in New York is also among the highest in the country.
Although the city’s data included the settlement for Mr. Aziz, whose 1965 conviction was thrown out in 2021, the $13 million settlement for Khalil Islam, whose conviction for the assassination was exonerated posthumously, has yet to be reflected.