NEW YORK (AP)—The fiancee and friends of an unarmed man killed in a 50-bullet police shooting on his wedding day said they wanted justice. The legal system gave them money — more than $7 million.
The city did what it has done time and time again: pay.
Taxpayers foot the bill — New York officials say the payments cost less than insurance would, and officers themselves don't usually bear personal responsibility.
The $964 million in payouts covers everything from brutality cases to patrol-car wrecks to stationhouse accidents, and it includes settlements and trial awards. Some police officers have been sued again and again — including one officer at least seven times on excessive force and brutality claims. Some law firms have made it their primary business to sue the city.
City lawyers call the payouts a hard-fought cost of policing a metropolis of 8.3 million people — a price officials work to minimize through officer training and discipline. And the city has prevailed in thousands of cases, including some deadly shootings.
"We're not pushovers," said Fay Leoussis, one of the city's chief lawyers.
But the city is literally paying for police mistakes without learning from them, critics say. In cases like the 50-bullet shooting, the city pays even when officers are acquitted of criminal charges and don't admit wrongdoing.
"Right now it's open season against the city. Just file a lawsuit, and you're going to get money," said City Council member Peter Vallone, who has sponsored a bill he hopes will make it impossible to pay out dubious claims. "Everyone makes out — except the taxpayer."
Lawsuits against police are inevitable, some experts say — police interact with millions of citizens a year, confronting criminal suspects and the mentally ill, as well as the angry, opportunistic and litigious. A 2005 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that 90 percent of people say officers act properly, but other studies estimate about 30,000 lawsuits are filed against them a year.
To some who have sued and won, payouts don't amount to true compensation.
"You can sue New York City, but it's not really justifying what happened," says Charles Shepherd, who spent about 14 years in prison on a murder conviction that hinged on the testimony of a witness who eventually admitted she'd lied; another man later confessed to the crime.
Shepherd settled in 2005 for $370,000 from the city and $1.65 million from the state.
"The city feels they can give you X amount of money" to make up for injustice, said Shepherd, 45, now a counselor for children with HIV. "It's not fair whatsoever."
Comparing cities' payouts is complicated because of differences in record-keeping, the time frames of data available and the fact that the 35,000-officer NYPD is more than twice as big as any other U.S. police department.
But some rough comparisons can be made, using recent data several cities provided to the AP.
Chicago, with about a third of New York's population, paid out an average of $39.1 million a year over the past six fiscal years; New York paid $96.4 million a year on average from 1999 to 2008, the most recent years available.
Chicago's figures include a nearly $21 million payment in 2008 to a driver paralyzed when police slammed into his car while chasing someone else.
In Los Angeles, with less than half New York's population, police paid an average of nearly $21.4 million a year in the past seven fiscal years.