The Problem With The $5.9 Million Settlement Over Eric Garner’s Death


Candles are seen at the memorial of Garner in Staten Island

The family of Eric Garner, whose death by illegal police chokehold sparked a nationwide movement, will receive $5.9 million from the city of New York. The wrongful death settlement was reached with the New York City comptroller’s office Monday, a few days before the anniversary of Garner’s death. With the historic payment, New York City taxpayers will once again be picking up the tab while the officer who killed Garner remains free.

The settlement is part of a new effort by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Stringer is trying to pay out civil rights claims before the victims file lawsuits, thereby cutting down on the cost to taxpayers by avoiding a protracted legal battle. That’s because police misconduct has been draining the city coffers for years, including multi-million-dollar payouts to victims of the NYPD’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practice. The city’s litigation costs have ballooned as claims against the NYPD rose to record numbers. Settlements and judgments against the New York Police Department amount to the highest of any city agency, costing $137.2 million in fiscal year 2013.

The comptroller’s office has implored the NYPD for years to start tracking individual officers’ records so they can start holding serial abusers on the force accountable, and cut down costs in the process. Though the NYPD has not yet done this, the comptroller’s office has taken it upon itself to start tracking which precincts are triggering the most allegations of civil rights violations.

Offending officers almost never have to contribute their own money to city settlements with their victims. The tab is entirely picked up by taxpayers or an insurer. According to an analysis by UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, very few police officers in the U.S. have ever had to contribute to a payout to their victims, even in cases where they were criminally prosecuted or otherwise disciplined. Even when an officer is ordered to pay punitive damages — a doctrine specifically intended to punish abusive cops financially if they acted with “reckless or callous indifference” — the government put up the cash. “Officers did not pay a dime of the over $3.9 million awarded in punitive damages” between 2006 and 2011, Schwartz wrote.

But financial consequences are just one way to hold law enforcement accountable. Like thousands of other police officers who have brutalized and killed people, Officer Daniel Pantaleo has thus far faced zero criminal charges for killing Garner. One analysis of more than 8,300 misconduct accusations and nearly 11,000 officers found that 39 percent actually resulted in legal action. Police on trial are also much less likely to be convicted or incarcerated than the typical criminal defendant.

It’s also extremely rare for an officer to face any kind of internal discipline, let alone criminal charges. Pantaleo remains a paid employee of the NYPD. He reportedly wants to leave desk duty and get back on the streets as soon as possible.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress 


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