For Brooklyn Middle, a civil rights settlement may very well be crushing | Nationwide

MINNEAPOLIS – It’s the excruciating calculation that inevitably follows a fatal police shootout.

Families file federal civil rights suits, and local governments must either negotiate with grieving loved ones to compensate them for a lost life or allow a jury to rule on damages.

Minneapolis set records with the $ 20 million settlement paid to Justine Ruszczyk Damond’s family in 2019 and the $ 27 million settlement paid to George Floyd’s next of kin in March.

The big payouts from Minneapolis and other major cities are raising the stakes for smaller towns like Brooklyn Center, where a police officer shot and killed a black man, Daunte Wright earlier this month. Smaller communities may struggle to pay tens of millions of dollars in settlements, resort to tax hikes, borrowing, and financial bankruptcy in the most extreme circumstances.

“It creates a really awkward situation where it appears to an outsider that your life is worth more or less, depending on whether you were killed by the police in a big city or a small town,” said Prof. John , Lawyer at the University of Chicago Rappaport investigating police misconduct and liability. “People think, ‘Well, if George Floyd’s family has $ 27 million, Daunte Wright’s family should get $ 27 million because he’s just as worthy.’ “”

Minneapolis is self-insured and relies on its relatively low coffers to cover billing costs. The vast majority of Minnesota cities, including Brooklyn Center, rely on an insurance company, which caps basic coverage to $ 2 million for most incidents.

But at a time when police killings are rampant and calls for accountability and reform are peaking, insurance limits and lack of funds are not a defense that protects the Brooklyn Center – or any city – from multi-million dollar judgments, scholars say.

Since payouts are typically “compensation” for a lost life and “punishment” to encourage cities to reform policing, the amounts could continue to rise, said Prof. David Schultz of the University of Minnesota Law.

“I am convinced (eventually) that you will get a jury that will come back with a $ 100 million fine,” he said. “They’re going to get a jury that says, ‘$ 27 million here, $ 10 million there – it’s not working,’ and they’re going to nail the city down.”

Former Brooklyn Center policewoman Kimberly Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Wright during a traffic obstruction on April 11th. Police said Potter, who is white, accidentally fired her pistol after mistaking it for her taser. She has resigned from the unit and is charged with second degree manslaughter.

A 1978 US Supreme Court decision opened the door for local governments to being sued for damages on state civil rights claims for the first time, Schultz said. In 1980, Minnesota cities formed the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust “in the face of a tough commercial insurance market that made it difficult and expensive for cities to find traditional insurance,” trusted administrator Dan Greensweig said in an email.

The trust provides liability insurance for 827 of the 853 cities in Minnesota. Cities pay into the trust every year, and about a third buy additional liability insurance with an annual cap of $ 5 million. The Brooklyn Center has only acquired additional coverage for its communal liquor stores, Greensweig said.

The Brooklyn Center Police Department had eight police misconduct payouts from 2007 to 2018, two of which were among the most expensive police payouts during that period, according to an analysis by the Minneapolis Star Tribune that contained data from the insurance company.

Greensweig said the trust never paid a claim beyond its limits, but some cities have settled cases for amounts beyond their cover and withdrew funds from their own reserves.

According to Insurance Trust payout data from 2007-17, the largest payouts during that time were around $ 3 million.

In 2017, the insurance fund on behalf of the member city of St. Anthony paid nearly $ 3 million to the family of Philando Castile, a black man who was shot and killed by police during a traffic obstruction in nearby Falcon Heights. The officer who shot him was charged with manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm and acquitted on all counts.

Despite the recent high profile comparisons, the trust has not adjusted any coverage limits since 2014.

“With the excess coverage we are making available to cities that so wish, we are confident that we are currently struck a fair balance between providing adequate coverage for claims at a cost that does not unduly burden local taxpayers,” said Greensweig. “We will continue to monitor this, however.”

For smaller cities, a huge payoff for police behavior could be the equivalent of a year in taxes.

The Brooklyn Center property tax levy for 2021 – the amount of property taxes the city collects – is approximately $ 20 million.

The suburb of 31,000 residents north of Minneapolis is one of the poorest in Hennepin County. According to census data, 15% of people live below the federal poverty line. Most of the residents identify as colored people. The Brooklyn Center is already spending around 40% – nearly $ 9.8 million – of its $ 23.8 million general fund on daily police salaries and operations this year.

City guides did not return a request for comment, but Mayor Mike Elliott attended Wright’s funeral and expressed his strong support for family and police reform.

Wright family lawyers also did not respond to requests for comment.

A community’s solvency and its insurance limits can play an important role in negotiating with a victim’s family, but it does not prevent them from asking for more.

A huge settlement can be seen as partial justice to the grieving Wright family. Or, it could end up in an awkward situation where one of the most diverse communities in the state, where some residents feel at odds with their own police department, pays extra taxes to cover the cost of police misconduct.

“Given the city’s population structure, a lot of people who look like Daunte Wright will pay,” said Schultz.

Despite financial pressures, large settlements can be a means for cities to publicly recognize the damage done and restore community trust, said Attorney Rick Petry, program manager for diversity, justice and inclusion at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Cities “need to deal with exposure, but we also need to look politically to see what we can do to restore trust in the community,” he said.

In Minneapolis, the Damond Murder settlement broke its previous payout record – and was then beaten by the Floyd settlement, which forced the city to dive into its reserves. Officials were convicted in both cases.

Petry said city guides will be subject to intense scrutiny in the future when attempting to withdraw lower amounts. The trend has sparked the suggestion that individual civil servants should compensate themselves – although the cost to civil servants could be prohibitive, Schultz said.

“Besides,” he said, “I can’t imagine an insurance company touching it.”

(Staff writer Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.)

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