Much of the previous scholarly research on police civil liability has focused on precedentsetting cases decided by the United States Supreme Court (Barrineau, 1987, 1994; del Carmen,
1993; del Carmen & Smith, 1997; Franklin, 1993; Kappeler, 1997; Klotter, 1999; Smith, 1995;
Chapter 1 l Overview of Civil Liability 5
Wardell, 1983). Specific police civil liability research has addressed issues of police actions
“under color of law” (Vaughn & Coomes, 1995; Zargans, 1985); deaths in detention due to suicide (Kappeler et al., 1991); police misconduct (Littlejohn, 1981; Meadows & Trostle, 1988;
Schmidt, 1976; Silver, 2008); negligent operation of police vehicles and failure to arrest drunk
drivers (Kappeler & del Carmen, 1990a,b); officers’ attitudes toward police liability (Garrison,
1995; McCoy, 1987); liability for abandonment in high-crime areas and moonlighting (Vaughn,
1994; Vaughn & Coomes, 1995); trends in settling civil cases (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995,
1999, 2005); liability in sudden, wrongful custodial deaths (Ross, 1998, 2005, 2007); liability
trends in the police use of force (Ross, 2002); liability trends in custodial suicides and sudden
in-custody deaths (Ross, 2007, 2008a,b); and liability issues affecting police pursuits (Ross,
While a great deal of research exists relative to civil suit analysis, a dearth of accurate statistical information exists regarding the trends and types of lawsuits filed against police. It is difficult to precisely assess the true nature of lawsuits filed against the police, partly because the
courts publish only a portion of the cases they decide, and judges are selective in documenting
those cases. There is no systematic method for collecting information specific to police civil
litigation. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOC) tracks federal civil actions annually, but does not specifically report cases filed against the police. Current literature reveals
that civil lawsuits against police are widespread (Worrall, 1998), frequent (Kappeler, 1997),
increasing (Kappeler et al., 1993), and a major concern to law enforcement officers (Garrison,
1995; Scogin & Brodsky, 1991), police chiefs (Vaughn et al., 2001), and government leaders
(MacManus, 1997).
In the absence of this information, researchers are forced to speculate about the trends
and patterns of police civil litigation. A limited number of researchers in the past have used
surveys or content analysis methods to examine trends in police civil litigation and they suggest that the number of cases filed against police officers is growing (Americans for Effective
Law Enforcement, 1974, 1980, 1982; Barrineau & Dillingham, 1983; International Association
of Chiefs of Police, 1976; Kappeler, Kappeler & del Carmen, 1993). Surveys administered by
Americans for Effective Law Enforcement (AELE) report civil lawsuits filed against the police
rose from 1,741 cases in 1967 to 3,894 in 1971, a 124 percent increase. They also report that
by 1976 more than 13,400 cases were filed against the police (1982), making a 500 percent
increase from 1967. More than 40 percent of all suits during this period alleged false arrest,
false imprisonment, or malicious prosecution. Claims of excessive force by officers amounted
to 27 percent of the allegations, and six percent of the claims alleged the misuse of firearms.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP, 1976) indicated during this same
period that one in 34 police officers was sued. In the early 1980s, AELE estimated that more
than 26,000 cases were filed annually (1982), and one legal scholar has estimated that since the
1990s, police have faced approximately 30,000 lawsuits annually (Silver, 2010).
Prior studies have revealed a variety of monetary awards for plaintiffs. A survey conducted
by the National Institute of Municipal Law Enforcement Officers revealed that the 215 municipalities surveyed faced costs of more than $4.3 billion in pending liability lawsuits (Barrineau,
1987). The average cost of a jury award against a municipality is reported to be about
$2 million (del Carmen, 1987). In the mid-1980s, there were more than 250 cases in which
juries awarded at least $1 million (National League of Cities, 1985). A study of § 1983 police
lawsuits from 1983 to 1997 in two federal district courts in New York revealed that monetary
damages were awarded in 30 percent of the cases (Chiabi, 1996). Damage awards ranged from
$400 to $950,000, averaging $50,408. During this 14-year period, the total monetary awards
amounted to $4,536,702. Damages were more likely when a case was settled (47%) as opposed
to when a jury or court awarded monetary relief (22%).
In studying liability trends of § 1983 litigation in U.S. District Courts between 1978 and
1995, Kappeler (1997) found that the average award (and attorneys’ fees) against police departments was $118,698, ranging from $1 to $1.6 million. Scarborough and Hemmens (1999)
examined U.S. Courts of Appeals decisions from 1989 to 1993. They reported monetary damages in only 27 cases, ranging from $1 to $7,559,000. Attorneys’ fees ranged from $12,500 to
$325,000, with a mean of $65,898.
These figures obviously do not reflect cases that are settled out of court, which represent a
majority of police litigation. Moreover, these awards do not reflect the personnel time, resources,
and legal and expert witness fees spent in defending the case. Chiabi (1996) reported that 32
percent of all police litigation in two federal district courts in New York were resolved through
settlement. Worrall and Gutierrez’s (1999) survey of 50 attorneys representing cities with police
departments with more than 100 officers found that 41 percent of cases were settled.
From 1994 to 2001, the West Virginia State Police paid out $7.8 million due to wrongful arrests; $700,000 in 2001 for the same charge; and $88,000 in 2002 and $44,000 in 2003 for
claims of failing to train and supervise officers (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2004). From
2001 to 2004, the City of Los Angeles, California, paid out more than $4 million in police civil
lawsuits ranging from sexual discrimination against gay police officers to two cases involving
the use of lethal force (Los Angeles Times, 2004).
A study of the New York Police Department conducted between 1987 and 1991 showed that
the city paid out $44 million in claims to settle police misconduct litigation. During this fiveyear period, the average settlement or judgment awarded to the plaintiff more than doubled,
from $23,000 to $52,000. In 1996, the New York Police Department settled 503 police misconduct cases for $27.3 million and complaints made to the civilian review board increased
sharply (Sontag & Barry, 1997). In 1991, the Los Angeles Police Department paid $13 million in damage awards for police misconduct (Christopher Commission, 1991). A Justice
Department study of Los Angeles County found that county officials settled 61 police misconduct cases, paying plaintiffs between $20,000 and $1.7 million per case. In 1999, the LAPD paid
$2 million in monetary awards and settlements (McGreevy, 2000). In 1991, the City of Detroit
paid $20 million in damage awards (del Carmen, 1991). One officer cost the City of Detroit
$2.4 million over several years as he incurred 13 lawsuits, primarily due to excessive force
claims (Ashenfelter & Ball, 1990). All of the civil lawsuits were settled.
Other studies have documented trends in police civil litigation. Swickard (2005) reported
that the City of Detroit has paid out more in police civil litigation than any other large city in
the country. Swickard reported that a city council study showed that Detroit paid out more
than $118 million from 1987 to 2005 and nearly $45 million from 2001 to 2004 to settle police
Chapter 1 l Overview of Civil Liability 7
misconduct lawsuits. This rate accounts for about $4,000 per officer, or about $17.00 per
person living in Detroit. Of the 4,100 officers, 261 were named in more than one suit, and 107
of these officers were sued in three or more cases. Suits naming these officers cost more than
$32 million from 1997 to 1999. By comparison, the City of Los Angeles, California, paid about
$3,000 per officer to settle police civil lawsuits, while New York paid about $1,300 and Chicago
paid just under $1,000 per officer to settle such lawsuits.
While comparisons of the trends of civil litigation among cities are problematic, general
patterns are worth noting. The City of Chicago paid slightly more than $17 million in settlements for police lawsuits from 1997 to 1999 (Swickard & Hackney, 2001). In Cicero, Illinois, the
city paid out $1.1 million to settle two sexual harassment lawsuits and one excessive force lawsuit from 2000 to 2003 (McNeil, 2005). From 1991 to 2001, the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, paid
about $2.4 million to settle 56 cases (McLaughlin, 2001). The settlements are but a portion of
the $685 million that it takes to operate the city annually. In the largest payout in the history
of the department, the City of Oakland, California, settled a class action lawsuit claiming that
a few “rogue” officers victimized more than 100 citizens, amounting to $11 million (DeFao,
2003). A court awarded $1 million against the City of San Jose, California, in the wrongful death
of a mentally impaired man (Associated Press, 2005).
A further review of police litigation settlement trends in reported select cities is shown in
Table 1.1. The trends of these 12 cities show multimillion settlements, with the exception of
Newark, New Jersey (NJACLU, 2010). While caution must be used in reviewing these figures,
because city populations vary, demographics of the city vary, which in turn impact city economic variables, the number of sworn police officers employed in each city, and a host of other
variables that may impact civil litigation and settlements, these figures do show the enormity
of the litigation problem during the decade of 2000. It appears settlement payout amounts are
increasing over previous decades as attorney wages/fees have increased, some cases involve
numerous plaintiffs, and many cases get grouped into the same year the case actually settled.