Lawsuits against the NYPD have risen 20% in the 2012 fiscal year, and 63% over the last decade. According to a report by The New York World, civil rights claims brought against the NYPD have skyrocketed by 70% from 2006 to 2010 alone. In fiscal year 2011 the NYPD paid out $186.3 million in judgements—it expects to pay at least $154 million for FY 2012 and is budgeting $180 million for FY 2013. "People are going to the CCRB less and going to the courts more," says Joel Berger, a civil rights attorney and former senior litigator for the city's Law Department for eight years. "The city is overloaded with complaints and lawsuits."
“There is tremendous pressure on the police to make arrests and keep crime numbers low but if there is little legal basis, that costs them money years later," attorney Mark Taylor adds. A recent example being Monday's court decision rendering mass arrests at the 2004 RNC illegal. But it's not just bogus arrests stemming from stop-and-frisks or "catch and release" protest policing that are increasing the NYPD's legal tab. The Law Department's confidence appears to have risen with an influx of hiring. "They got really cocky, saying we're not going to settle, we're going to take them to trial," Rose Weber, a former Law Department attorney said.
Not all judges appreciated their tenacity. “In two of my cases, the judges were furious. In one, the judge threatened sanctions," Weber said. "I think the city decided ‘let’s pull back on that strategy’ once they saw they were not going to get them all thrown out."
City Councilmember and chairman of the Public Safety Committee, Peter Vallone, believes the NYPD settles too many lawsuits, and doesn't fight enough: “Their policy is to settle way too many cases…settle when you’re guilty, learn from it, and fight like hell if you’re not.” But Berger, the civil rights attorney and former Law Department litigator, calls that strategy "absurd."
“It is absolutely absurd to respond to an increase in lawsuits by simply hiring more lawyers and defending to the hilt,” Berger said. “That is such poor public policy. What they should be doing is asking themselves, ‘Why?’” The City of Los Angeles pays $14 per capita annually on tort cases for the LAPD. New York City pays $81.
[UPDATE] The City Law Department emails a statement as a response to The New York World's piece:
Police officers have extremely difficult, complex jobs. Because the police force interacts with tens of thousands of people a day, often those involved in contentious situations are frequently subject to litigation. That does not mean every claim brought has merit. There are many different factors that can affect how many claims are brought, including the economy, press coverage of a large jury verdict, etc.
We have a team of attorneys that works with city agencies to analyze risk management strategies and litigation trends. We look at the unique facts of each lawsuit in deciding whether to settle a case. The decision to settle a lawsuit is not an automatic indication of wrongdoing by the police officer or officers involved. Rather, it is a complex business judgment based on, among other things, the inherent risks of litigation.
Comparing New York City's total tort payouts to other major cities' is an "apples-to-oranges" undertaking because of the breadth of agencies and functions covered in New York City's tort payouts and the differences in other states' tort laws.