by Martha K. Huggins, Ph.D.*
Tulane University Emerita………….
The Key West Citizen wrote on January 30—after The Blue Paper had broken this news many hours before—that a $900,000 settlement had been “hammered out” in the Charles Eimers’ wrongful death suit against the City of Key West. Key West’s Police Chief Donie Lee finds the payout a “difficult decision to accept” but understands that the city’s insurer made a “business decision.” Spokeswoman Allison Crean claims that, “No taxpayer dollars are involved in the settlement.” She adds that, “Mounting legal costs were the reason the city’s insurance carrier ‘made a business decision to settle’.” Chief Lee and his police will not have to assume responsibility for the deadly outcome of Eimers’ police Taser take-down and death-by-smothering. Who’s left to clean up this civil rights case? The taxpayers!
Taxpayer monies absolutely are part of Eimers’ wrongful death settlement. Between 2011 and 2013 Key West City government used our taxes to pay Preferred Government Insurance Trust $142,118 for law enforcement-related liability insurance policies. This insurance does not cover rank-and-file police; it protects only Key West government and its officials–and very likely Chief Donie Lee as well—against police brutality’s possibly expensive economic blow-back. The combined annual cost of the city’s four police liability policies increased just a little over $2K between 2011 and 2012, but the total cost shot up $15K between 2012 and 2013, in other words, by more than 11% in one year. One can expect a similar or even larger escalation for 2015 and thereafter due to the Eimers’ settlement and any other police abuse suits the city loses or mediates away.
But not all Key West taxpayers bear an equal economic burden. As in other US cities, it is Key West’s poorer and struggling middle class families who pay disproportionately the taxes–excise, food, rental, property—that protect Key West government against known police lawlessness. The Conch Republic’s richer residents have a lower proportion of their family incomes burdened by such taxes. Historically, nationally and in Key West wealthier Americans are proportionally much less likely to be victims of police brutality while poorer and middle-class people are far more likely to be such victims.
An additional cost of police misconduct results from the fact that most liability insurers stipulate (and state law usually requires) that an insured state, county, or municipal government must also set aside each year a mandated amount–often between one-third and two-thirds of the previous two- or three-year’s real or expected police brutality payouts–to cover the next year’s potential losses. This self-insured retention (SIR), as insurers call it, goes into the insured government’s ‘reserve’ fund to pay possible court judgments, settlements, and legal fees related to police violations of civil rights, up to the amount at which a government’s insurance policy kicks in above the SIR (‘deductable’). All of Key West’s law enforcement liability policies have such a SIR, hence the city must use its taxpayer-fed reserve to pay part of the Eimers’ lawsuit indemnification.
While writing a book, Underwriting Police Brutality, I’ve plodded through US city, county, and state laws, struggled with opaque and misleading municipal and state budgets, and pestered large corporate insurers to release some well-guarded facts. Through a public records request last April I learned of Key West government’s four law enforcement-related insurance policies: General Liability and Law Enforcement Liability, and Public Officials’ Errors and Omissions (E&O), and Directors’ and Officers’ (D&O) insurance. Key West thus insures against its executives against its cops’ expected lawlessness.
The cops themselves have to purchase their own costly liability insurance—although most do not. When a suit is brought against police they either hire their own attorney or they get one from their powerful Police Benevolent Association (PBA)—as Key West’s Officer Lovette is reported to have done. Some US law enforcement officers have let themselves be represented by one of their state or local government’s own attorneys, only to realize too late that this is a serious conflict of interests. A government’s interests are usually at odds with those of its defendant cop, whose illegalities–if well-documented– could bring down political and police superiors. Someone’s got to take the fall and in the Eimers case, Officer Lovell is doing that. This ‘one bad cop’s’ ultimately well documented actions could well divert public attention from the real foundations of police lawlessness—powerful exclusionist real estate and tourism pressure groups and the politicians, government officials who work for them, and the voters who support this faction—leaving police with the onerous task of controlling at any expense those excluded from civil society.
‘Avoid a trial at any cost,’ is the mantra of police brutality insurers and their government clients. Therefore, they assign to law enforcement the initial work of covering up evidence. Clearly Charles Eimers’ death by Key West police was quickly (and literally) “slabbed”—laid to rest—when his body was taken to a mortuary rather than for forensic evidence collection . Thereafter, evidence that came to light was ignored or hidden in bureaucratic finagling, crucial facts were denied, and other alleged facts were cooked up. If Key West’s Blue Paper had not short-circuited media, police, state, and Key West city government efforts to kill serious investigations into Eimers’ slaying, his death by police would have remained, at best, a mystery. Key West’s Blue Paper acted as a free and critical press which is our best asset for holding local governments to a democratic standard.
Yet why wouldn’t a city’s executives want police brutality law suits to disappear? Payouts, a volatile expense for state and local governments and their taxpayers, can quickly devolve into new expenses. In most US municipalities if the government cannot disperse its part of a lump-sum settlement it is required to pay the awardee annual interest on the settlements remaining debt. Cities with lawsuit payouts that exceed their ability to pay issue bonds to cover the exponentially higher settlement costs and interest attached to them—Chicago, no stranger to police violations of civilians’ civil rights, recently sold almost $1 billion in general obligation bonds—these and other such bonds are usually backed by property tax payments–just to pay the law suits resulting from Chicago’s ‘finest’ torturing largely poor, often older, black men. Los Angeles officials tried unsuccessfully to divert federal funds slated for a ‘No Smoking’ campaign to cover the city’s police violence lawsuits. And in 2013, Fullerton, California, with a predominately urban population of almost 139,000, had to sell over $7 million in bonds to cover two liability suits–one of these a $1 million settlement involving police brutality. Issuing such bonds to pay settlements and court judgments resulting from police violations of civil rights, locks a city’s taxpayers into decades of debt service payments. Fullerton City’s bonds, with an interest rate of up to 6% to be paid over a 20 year period, left that city’s taxpayers forking out $550,000 in debt service annually. Police brutality creates the pounding headache that that never goes away: As taxpayers foot the bill for old settlements and court judgments, new police brutality suits are added and these along with older ones often come with interest payments.
Using tax dollars to pay police brutality settlements and judgments turns Key West’s taxpayers into police brutality underwriters. In my opinion, we should instead be dedicating tax monies to Key West’s underfunded and racially segregated schools and toward creating adequate public workforce housing. The next time Key West claims it is without funds to invest in the improvements you want, ask what portion of your taxes go instead toward paying expected and actual local police brutality’s costs.
Insuring Key West against the economic costs of police brutality is predicated upon the actuarial assumption that police civil rights violations are inevitable. Indeed, Eugene O’Donnell, former NYPD officer and prosecutor, who is a professor at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argues that “Brutality is part of the police job.” Yet by buying into this mind-set taxpayers become partners in allowing and hiding police violations of civil rights: Impunity, fed by a lack of consequences for police brutality, breeds more police lawlessness. And while it seems–as liability insurers and city managers often claim–that lawsuits have become a US “cottage industry,” in fact only a small fraction of police brutality’s aggrieved victims even file a suit, with few of these suits ever becoming viable, and then only a small portion of these receive a court-mandated judgment or settlement. Meanwhile, those risk-managing public images of blame for lawsuit costs promote the claim that, ‘Everyone wants to sue and predatory lawyers reap the gains.’
In fact, insurers and their actuaries know that police civil rights violations occur regularly in the US. Corporate liability insurers recognize that police lawlessness is institutionally rooted in what some criminologists call a “defensive bureaucracy,” which is why police organizations do not yield to transparency. This protects illegal police actions which often emanate from the implicit and explicit commands of higher-ups. If police brutality were merely an unusual, atypical action of ‘a few bad cops,’ as we are regularly told, then there would be no need for corporate insurers and their agents to develop new police liability insurance lines, or to tweak existing ones to enhance client affordability, or to–as insurers say– “prospect” for new government clients. Police liability insurers need police lawlessness, or at least a government’s fear of its consequences, to grow their client liability insurance base. In turn, police liability insurers protect themselves against catastrophic losses—as these are defined by the profit/loss expectations of their boards of directors—by taking out a “reinsurance” policy that transfers some of their risk to other insurers or alternative institutions. And of course police liability insurers also off-set risk by wagering on the stock market to (hopefully) fatten their holdings against multiple insurers’ catastrophic disasters.
Key West’s Citizen Review Board (CRB) is right to finally request an FBI investigation into Charles Eimers’ death. The Monroe County Commissioners should support this initiative; it might uncover and disclose new information for the CRB, the latter is yet another, albeit small, taxpayer cost generated by the past police lawlessness in Key West. All Keywesters will continue paying the moral costs of Eimers’ death. Lawless police, with their Superintendents, Chiefs, and Commanders, and the other public officials who enable and hide police lawlessness, as well as bystander taxpayers who fail to question where their taxes are going, weaken the quality of America’s already very imperfect democracy.
Using city revenues to manage and thus hide, rather than eliminate, police lawlessness is one of the greatest threats to democracy on streets, parks, and beaches where most Keywesters live. Public police actions powerfully communicate for all to see, which people have rights—“good citizens”– and which people do not—the apparent and actual homeless, the assumed and actually mentally ill, and poor people of color whose status as ‘matter out of place’ offends business and public consciousness.
*Martha K Huggins’ 8 books and numerous articles have been published in the US and internationally. Writing on human rights, her 40-year research and college and university career (Union College, Schenectady, NY and Tulane University, (New Orleans, LA) have focused on police violence in the US and Brazil.
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