No sum of money will breathe back into George Floyd’s body the life Derek Chauvin squeezed out of it. Nor will the budgetary impact of the $27 million Minneapolis will pay to settle his family’s lawsuit rank as the most significant consequence of Floyd’s death. Yet $27 million is enough to make even the biggest and wealthiest municipalities take notice. Is the Floyd settlement — one of the largest on record — an aberration or a sign of things to come? And if police liability costs are rising generally, what will this mean for pandemic-pinched local governments?
The Floyd settlement, in all likelihood, is both an outlier and a clue about where we’re headed. Even among the most notorious and tragic cases, Floyd’s death was exceptionally callous and indefensible. It’s hard to imagine Minneapolis defending the explosive case at trial. The pressure to settle, at almost any cost, was enormous.
But there is also reason to think the $27-million figure reflects not only the circumstances of Floyd’s killing but also broader shifts in public sentiment. In a recent study, Aurélie Ouss and I looked at 23 years of police liability data — up through 2015 — from 350 law enforcement agencies in a midsized state. The patterns we saw were puzzling at first. The number of claims for compensation people filed each year trended slightly downwards over time, as did the number of claims alleging excessive force; fatalities held steady. But payouts — average and total — moved in the opposite direction, spiking by tenfold in 2014-2015, largely due to rising payouts on claims involving fatalities and excessive force. Claimants won more often over time, as well.
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