Who should pay for police brutality? Why not cops?

There is a concern in City Hall about the growing cost of police brutality. As the City of St. Louis faces nearly two dozen lawsuits stemming from the police mishandling of the 2017 protests following the acquittal of former officer Jason Stockley, some officials, including Congressman Lacy Clay are asking where the millions of dollars to pay these settlements or awards are going to come from. And why must taxpayers continue to pay year after year for the violent behavior of bad cops?

Just last week, a judge awarded $500,000 to the family of Anthony Lamar Smith, the man killed by Stockley when he was a St. Louis City police officer. That’s in addition to the $900,000 Smith’s family was previously awarded in their wrongful death lawsuit back in 2013. This new award comes after it was determined that state and city officials withheld evidence in the earlier case. 

The city and the state will split the $500,000 payment. The city will be asking for the state to reimburse its half since the police department was under state control at the time of Smith’s killing. But there will be no such help with the lawsuits stemming from September 2017. And there are many.

Sixteen different people claim they were illegally kettled, beaten and pepper sprayed at a Sept. 17, 2017 protest downtown. According to the Associated Press, around 11 p.m. that night, police used a tactic known as a kettle in which officers form lines and encircle crowds deemed unruly. The procedure resulted in 123 arrests. 

“But the practice has drawn severe criticism from some who say it ensnares not only protesters but innocent people who cannot escape. The lawsuits say some of plaintiffs were beaten and pepper sprayed. 

Among those suing were downtown residents who said they were not part of the protest, along with journalists, a scientist, and two military officers,” reported the AP.

Also among those brutalized was a black, undercover St. Louis City cop, beaten by his fellow officers. Those officers were indicted two weeks ago in federal court. U.S. Magistrate Judge Noelle Collins then released them on their own recognizance, a privilege surely not extended to any other suspect charged with beating a police officer. But cops have their own set of rules and when it comes to accountability, they rarely pay for their own mistakes. That bill usually falls to taxpayers. And the bill is high.

In 2016, a jury awarded Michael Holmes $2.5 million after it was determined that the two St. Louis City officers who arrested him in 2003 planted the drugs on him that got him a 20-year sentence for crack possession and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Holmes spent five years in jail. He was released after his arresting officer  himself was arrested in December 2008 and accused of planting evidence, stealing drug money, dealing drugs and arresting an innocent man. The cop was sentenced to 28 months. Taxpayers picked up the bill for their misdeeds.

That case went to trial. Many don’t. The ones that don’t go to trail are often settled in secret, outside of the public view.

In June 2016, the Post-Dispatch reported that 44 such settlements, totaling $4.7 million, had been paid since 2010.

In my interview with him this week, Clay said he doesn’t think that money needs to come out of the general city budget at the expense of other city services.

“It should come out of the police budget,” said Clay. “You have to train your officers better to interact with the public in a more respectful manner and stop costing taxpayers money because you’re so reckless in the type of officers you put out there on the streets.”

That’s one way to force the police chief, the public safety director, and the mayor to hold their officers accountable. 

But there is another way too: require St. Louis police officers to carry their own liability insurance, just like other professionals, including doctors. The city could cover the base cost of premiums. Any officers who have higher premiums because of their record would have to pay the difference out of their own pocket. And any officer who couldn’t get insured or whose premiums become cost prohibitive—well, here’s a way to rid the department of the city’s most violent–and expensive–cops.

Antonio French

antonio@thenorthsider.com Antonio French is the publisher of MetroSTL.com, The NorthSider and SouthSider community newspapers. Born and raised in north St. Louis, he is a social entrepreneur and former two-term St. Louis City alderman. He lives in the O'Fallon Park neighborhood with his wife, son, and four rescue dogs. Follow him on Twitter at @antoniofrench.

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