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Reminder: Law Enforcement Settlements Are An Expensive Problem

New figures add an additional $1.5 million to the already swollen cost of Denver law enforcement settlements. 

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Last year, the city of Denver shelled out more than $9 million in just two jail-abuse settlements ($3.25 million to Jamal Hunter, a former inmate who was attacked in a Denver jail, and $6 million to the family of Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher who died during a struggle with deputies in jail). At the time, it wasn’t clear what the outside legal fees for those cases cost the city, but now the numbers are in.

Noelle Phillips of The Denver Post reported last week that the city paid eight law firms nearly $1.5 million in those cases, bringing the total for these two incidents above $12 million. As Phillips noted, “That’s enough to hire 112 new deputies at the department’s base salary with benefits and send them through the sheriff’s department’s training academy.”

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(Read more: Allegations of police brutality are nothing new)

Anyone paying attention to Denver’s law enforcement agencies knows that the city spends a hefty sum of money to cover settlements for the organizations. While not all of these settlements are related to police abuse, the overall cost is alarming. In August 2014, The Denver Post reported that the city paid more than $13 million over the last 10 years to settle legal claims against the police and sheriff’s departments, a figure that represents nearly 80 percent of all legal settlements paid by the city in that time (not including the settlements for the Booker and Hunter cases, which were approved after the Post‘s report was issued). This figure also doesn’t include money paid to officers and deputies on paid investigatory leave. To wit: Phillips reported in November that the city was paying nearly $40,000 per month to five deputies on leave.

Obviously Denver isn’t the only city to grapple with hefty police-related settlement costs. In fact, compared to many other big cities, the total cost of Denver’s settlements may appear rather low. In October, the Washington Post reported that the city of Chicago has spent nearly half a billion dollars in settlements over the past 10 years. In 2011, Los Angeles’ tab rang in at more than $54 million, and New York City paid about $119 million for civil-rights violations and police misconduct alone. The city of Oakland, Calif., has paid $74 million to settle more than 400 lawsuits since 1990. Minneapolis’s total topped $21 million since 2003. And Dallas—coming in on the lower end—has paid more than $6 million since 2011. The Post points out that these settlement figures don’t tell the full story: Some cities have liability caps, and many settlements are sealed and may not be included in the cities’ totals. And in some cases, settlements reflect not an admission of guilt but rather a judgment that the settlement would cost less than going to court.

(Read more: Denver Police Department receives $1.8 million boost)

But still, Denver’s figures—and those of departments around the country—show that taxpayers end up spending an awful lot of money to deal with law enforcement issues. The city of Denver is working through a series of reforms designed to improve discipline among officers and deputies, but this could take a while. Changing the culture of any police agency takes time even when everyone is on board, let alone when one of the agencies isn’t fully cooperating.

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“I’m not sure the mayor and the others in power have come to grips with the fact that there is a broken culture in there,” Rev. Timothy Tyler, speaking of the city’s jails, told the Denver Post after Booker’s death last year. “There is an immediate and urgent change that needs to happen in that department before someone else dies.”

Editor’s Note 1/22/15: The headline on a previous version of this article read: “Reminder: Denver Police’s Settlements Are An Expensive Problem.” The subheadline read: “New figures add an additional $1.5 million to the already swollen cost of Denver police settlements.”

Follow 5280 contributor AJ Vicens on Twitter.

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