“I told them if we didn’t get our house in order, we would lose it,” Miranda told me. He had watched in 2010 as police officers in nearby Maywood turned in their badges and radios in a small ceremony after that city’s liability coverage was withdrawn by CJPIA, due in part to the excessive number of claims against the police. “It was pretty sobering,” he said. Yet the company’s threat, and the “performance improvement plan” it required officials to follow, finally set Irwindale on a path toward overhauling its dysfunctional department.
While much attention has been paid to the issue of police misconduct —with 14 cities pursuing consent decrees with the Department of Justice—what is less well known is how liability insurers can put a private-sector spin on reform, by demanding structural changes in the police departments that they cover. In April, a paper by the University of Chicago law professor John Rappaport detailed the effects these companies have had on police forces across America.
In Wisconsin, for instance, an insurer in 2002 recommended new training and supervision of SWAT teams in the Lake Winnebago area in the aftermath of two botched drug raids. In 2010, a police chief in Rutledge, Tennessee, was fired to appease the town’s liability insurer after assault allegations were leveled against him. In many other states, police forces have been asked to adopt new policies regarding body cameras, strip searches, and use of force.
Although an outside company exerting influence on local police may not seem compatible with good governance, there are hidden advantages to insurers’ monitoring police departments and suggesting improvements. For one, insurance companies are apolitical. “I think the debates about policing have become so fraught and so inflammatory,” Rappaport told me. “To have this big, well-heeled institution saying, ‘We’re not interested in that debate, we just want to get those numbers down’—it can make reform more palatable because it takes the electricity out.”
Cash-strapped cities, meanwhile, can benefit from the services offered by liability insurers, from police training sessions and applicant screening to data-driven insights gleaned from the insurer’s work with other municipalities. In Irwindale, there were biweekly meetings with an outside risk manager; hundreds of hours of training sessions for police officers on topics like sexual harassment and use of force; and outside reviews of all internal-affairs investigations. The department had 18 months to clean up its act in order to keep its coverage. “I’ve never seen such a thing in my whole career,” Miranda said. “I’m going on 27 years.”
The possibility of private-sector police regulation is of heightened interest under a Trump administration that intends to minimize the Department of Justice’s role in police oversight. Earlier this spring, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions unsuccessfully tried to scuttle the police consent decree in Baltimore. “Insurers have a much bigger role to play in a world where the DOJ is not going to be aggressive, and we’re going to have to rely on private plaintiffs to bring lawsuits and seek money damages,” Rappaport said. (Last month, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress that would make it nearly impossible to sue the police in the first place, including in brutality cases).