A Catholic priest who said an officer put him in a chokehold and slammed his head into a glass door. A woman who said she shouldn’t have been handcuffed when officers arrested her.
A father who claimed officers beat him in the hallway outside of his child’s hospital room until his head was bloody. A bank robber who was shot by officers after a high-speed chase. A man whose head was slammed into something so hard that the bones in his face broke.
In each situation the Oakland Police Department was sued. And in each one, the City of Oakland chose to settle out of court rather than take the case to trial.
A review of Oakland City Attorney lawsuit data and hundreds of federal and state court cases has found that since 1990, Oakland and private insurance carriers have spent $74 million dollars to settle at least 417 lawsuits accusing its police officers of brutality, misconduct and other civil rights violations.
Oakland spends more on civil-rights police lawsuits than nearly any other California law enforcement agency, with multimillion-dollar settlements coming directly out of funds that could go to libraries, police and fire services or road repair.
Supporters of the Oakland Police Department say that high number is a reflection of the city’s willingness to settle at any cost. But Oakland Police Beat’s analysis found that the City of Oakland has successfully defended itself against many lawsuits it considers to be unfounded.
Our investigation found that more than 500 officers were named in those lawsuits. At least 72 of those officers were named in three or more of the suits. Settlement amounts per lawsuits range from $100 to the nearly $11 million paid out following the so-called Riders scandal, where more than 100 plaintiffs accused officers of beating, kidnapping and planting evidence on suspects.
Historically, the number of OPD-related lawsuits filed against the city varies from year to year. But over the last three years the number of cases settled dropped, leaving some — like Oakland civil rights attorney Jim Chanin — cautiously hopeful that long-sought-after reforms are beginning to impact the Oakland Police Department.
The Oakland Police Department was given advance opportunity to preview our findings and respond. It has not done so. This story will be updated if that occurs.
Why Oakland Settles Instead of Fights
Civil rights cases most often involve allegations that an officer or officers used excessive force. Cases also include allegations of discrimination, false arrest, illegally obtained search warrants, wrongful death and other types of misconduct.
In settling the cases the city does not admit to wrongdoing. It pays the plaintiff a mutually agreed upon amount of money; in return the plaintiff drops the litigation.
As with any kind of civil litigation, not all lawsuits filed against the Oakland Police Department are found to be factually accurate. Since 1990, Oakland has succeeded in having more than 100 OPD use of force-related lawsuits dismissed.
The cases that Oakland settles have gone through an exhaustive series of steps by the City Attorney’s office before a final decision is made by the Oakland City Council, which is responsible for approving all settlements over $5,000.
Jayne Williams, Oakland’s City Attorney from 1987 to 2000, said that the city first investigates the facts of each case to determine if the city is in fact liable. Alex Katz, the current City Attorney’s chief of staff, declined to comment on other details about the process, citing the need to keep the city’s legal strategy private.
However, court records show the back-and-forth legal wrangling the city goes through — usually over several years — in an effort to get a case thrown out. It can be an expensive process. Because the City Attorney’s office has a small staff, it sometimes brings in outside council to assist with cases. That’s happened with 61 OPD use of force-related lawsuits since 2000. Those extra lawyers have cost the city nearly $40 million.
According to Katz, the City Council’s final decision is often based
not on the facts of the case, but on how much money the city would spend taking the case to trial — and how much it would lose if a jury found in favor of the plaintiff. Williams described the final steps in determining whether the city should settle as a cost-benefit analysis.
After publication Katz clarified: “Every decision on settlements is based on the facts and evidence of the case. You are correct that factors can include a cost benefit analysis. For example, if a case will cost $100,000 to take to trial, or if there’s a significant risk of a much higher judgment against the city, then it may be in the city’s interests to settle for $5,000. Of course, you can’t do that analysis without considering the facts of each case.”
Private insurance carriers often cover part of the cost of a settlement. The total that Oakland is responsible for comes out of the city’s general fund. Oakland’s general fund is typically used to run the city. It finances the city’s departments, its debts, its staff, as well as programs and services like parks and recreation and economic development.
Except in a case where a judge awards punitive damages, California law exempts officers from having to pay for all or part of a settlement. According to Williams and Katz, since 1990 no Oakland Police Department officer has covered the cost of a settlement in a civil rights-related case.
Oakland vs. California and the Nation
Oakland’s high settlement total for civil rights-related cases is unique in California — and likely the nation — for cities and police departments of a similar size.
Data for comparison is difficult to obtain. California cities were either unresponsive to our requests for police lawsuit information, or only had information from a small time span. Or, as in the case of San Jose, has no way of differentiating between civil rights and non-civil rights cases in its records. Bakersfield redacted the public records they sent us so heavily that they provided little useful information.
Researchers who’ve tried to analyze lawsuits filed against police have run into the same issues we did. In one study of 699 municipal police departments, only 30% would provide researchers with sufficient data. A study published last year that included 74 law enforcement agencies around the country — ranging from 36,000 sworn officers to a single officer — found that many of them simply do not keep records of lawsuits.
That’s perhaps unsurprising. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 61% of state police, local police, and sheriff’s departments polled in a national survey do not have any kind of computerized monitoring or assessment system that could be used to track lawsuits filed against the department or individual officers. (The OPD was not in that group.)
When compared to the 74 agencies in the study published last year (which was conducted by Joanna Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law), between 2006 and 2010 the only agencies that paid more in civil rights-related settlements than Oakland are some of the largest in the country. New York City, with 36,000 officers, spent $350 million on 6,113 cases; the sheriff’s department for Cook County, Illinois, where Chicago is located, has 5,655 officers and spent $76 million on 507 cases. Oakland, with only 766 officers, spent $22 million on 55 cases.
Oakland was ranked similarly in California during that same time period:
- Los Angeles County Sheriff (9,461 officers): $54 million on 248 cases
- Los Angeles Police Department (9,727 officers): $48 million on 155 cases
- Oakland Police Department (766 officers): $22 million on 55 cases
- California Highway Patrol (7,202 officers): $19 million on 68 cases
- Santa Anna Police Department (365 officers): $2.8 million on 21 cases
- San Diego Police Department (1,951 officers): $374,000 $374,000 on five cases [See clarification notes]
The number of lawsuits the city settles varies widely from year to year. But in two of the last three years the number has dropped to one of the lowest points since 1990. Oakland settled seven lawsuits filed in 2010 and three from 2012, down from 22 in 2005. The all-time high was 40 in 2001.
There are at least five civil rights-related OPD cases that are still open in federal court, including two related to the OPD’s use of force during the Occupy Oakland demonstrations. (Occupy lawsuits have cost the city more than $6 million in settlements so far.) It will take several years to determine if the downward trend represents a decrease in civil rights lawsuits filed against the OPD or a shift in the city’s settlement strategy.
But attorney James Chanin, who’s been working on police brutality cases in Oakland since the late 1970s, thinks there’s a possibility that what’s happened in the last few years is in fact something significant. If this shift does reflect meaningful change, it touches on more than just how the Oakland Police Department deals with civil rights lawsuits after they’ve been filed.
“We have more co-operation from the [police] union than we’ve ever had. I think we have a good chief. I think the political apparatus is coming around a little bit,” he said.
“It’s just been so many years that it was mediocre or worse [that I'm] loath to make sweeping predictions about progress. But I am cautiously optimistic.”
John Russo, City Attorney from Sept. 2000 to June 2011 could not be reach for comment for this story.
Laura McCamy contributed reporting to this story.
The Oakland Police Beat Officer Database was researched and compiled by Abraham Hyatt, Rin Kelly and Laura McCamy.
Editor’s note in response to Oakland City Attorney Chief of Staff Alex Katz: Oakland Police Beat had extensive communication with the City Attorney’s Office before we launched the site. Between March 1, 2013 and April 1, 2014, approximately 50 emails were exchanged between the Police Beat team and the City Attorney’s staff, the majority of which were between Editor Abraham Hyatt and Arlette Flores, Open Government Coordinator for Oakland City Attorney’s Office; Katz was included on many of them. Those emails also include Oakland Police Beat’s requests that the City Attorney’s office correct errors we found in the data it provided.
During that time period Katz and Hyatt spoke twice on the phone about the data, during which Hyatt explained the scope and nature of Oakland Police Beat. Hyatt and Publisher Susan Mernit also met with members of the City Administrator’s Office to discuss the project.
We respect the city’s desire to differentiate between what it pays in a settlement and what its insurance companies pay. However, the total settlement is what the city is responsible for, regardless of how the payments are costed out. We have clarified the story to reflect that distinction, but the total settlement amounts that we have reported on were provided by the City Attorney’s office and are factually correct. Oakland Police Beat stands by its stories and its data.