In the spring of 2016, the city of Cleveland agreed to pay $6 million to the family of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a city police officer in late 2014. It was one of the only forms of justice the grieving family was likely to receive. A grand jury had already opted not to charge the officers involved, so the city’s decision to settle the family’s wrongful death lawsuit for such a large amount of money was all the more significant. After the payout was announced, the Rice family said they hoped the settlement would “stimulate a movement for genuine change in our society and our nation’s policing.”

But five years later, Cleveland has paid more money in police misconduct settlements than in the five years before Rice was killed. In 2017, according to public records obtained by FiveThirtyEight and The Marshall Project, the city paid $7.9 million (including $3 million for half of the payment to the Rice family). In 2019, it paid $6 million. That’s more than the city spent on police misconduct in the entire five-year period between 2010 and 2014. 

What to make of that trend? Is it a sign that the city’s policing problems have gotten worse? Or evidence that more victims of police violence were moved to come forward? Or that the city has started to compensate people more generously for the harms they experienced?

These are crucial questions, which makes the lack of answers all the more frustrating.

Successful settlements are also a helpful source of information for places that are serious about police reform. If cities and police departments want to cut down on misconduct and spend less taxpayer money, they need to know how much they’re paying for police abuse, and what kinds of incidents are most frequent and most expensive.

But police settlements are their own bramble of contradictions. Including Cleveland, we obtained public records from 31 of the 50 cities with the highest police-to-civilian ratios in the country. Our analysis shows the cities have spent more than $3 billion to settle misconduct lawsuits over the past 10 years. 

Read the full article about police misconduct settlements by Amelia Thomson-Devaux, Laura Bronner and Damini Sharma at The Marshall Project.