When a New York City Police detective told a courtroom this week about the widespread practice of New York cops planting drugs on suspects, local media seized on the injustice of it. However, below the shocking ledes and headlines about cops behaving badly comes some more disturbing news in this case: The City of New York pays tons of money to drug suspects it wrongfully arrests.
This year, the New York City comptroller's office reported that there were 8,104 claims against the New York Police Department, which it called "a historical high amount." That report found that the number of claims against the NYPD rose by 43 percent over the last five years. Most of these will get settled out of court, as The New York Times reported in 2009:
“Settlements are generally business decisions,” said Celeste Koeleveld, a senior lawyer in the Law Department. “We face enormous burdens and costs in litigation. As a result, the pressure to settle is big. It’s not a sign that the case is meritorious.”
But whether the cases are meritorious or not, more arrests mean more lawsuits, which mean more settlements. That same Times article found that "in the last five years, the [NYPD] payouts have climbed to $117.6 million annually from $68.5 million. The number of claims increased to 6,616 from 5,420." In 2010, the city paid out $561 million in lawsuits overall.
One lawyer The New York Times interviewed for its story said the city was paying about $1,000 per hour for his clients's wrongful incarcerations, noting that all 25 of the claims he'd filed resulted in settlements. Two suspects Stephen Anderson arrested spent three days in jail (the maximum time they could legally be held without arraignment) sued the city and wound up getting a $300,000 settlement. He was indicted for the practice in 2009. The city currently faces a massive lawsuit over its controversial practice of inappropriately stopping and frisking minorities and then busting them on minor drug charges. Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered a stop to the small-time marijuana arrests last month.
In a thread on the NYPD-focused message board Thee Rant, members complained to one another that the department was being painted with too broad a brush, and that the practice of planting drugs wasn't widespread at all, but confined to a few bad apples. But even a small fraction of the force making false arrests clearly costs the department dearly. A whole sub-industry of law firms with websites like falsearrestlawsuit.com has sprung up to take advantage of the city's tendency to pay out. The testimony by Anderson that evidence tampering was widespread costs the New York Police Department some credibility, but it will also cost a lot of money.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.