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Police Misconduct Costly

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The city’s total cost for police misconduct cases during the past decade is more than $30 million when City Hall’s legal bills are included.

The Journal previously reported a tab of roughly $18 million from 2002 to 2011. About $8 million of that total has been charged to city taxpayers since Mayor Richard Berry took office in December 2009 and scrapped his predecessor’s policy of taking nearly all cases against officers to trial.

Officials last week released figures showing another $12.5 million spent on the city’s own legal costs, including staff attorneys, contract attorneys, paralegals, expert witnesses and other costs since 2002.

The city last week also released the number of police misconduct cases it has won on court motions or at trial in the past 10 years.

Under former Mayor Martin Chávez’s “no-settlement” policy – which had exceptions – the city won about a third of the 120 cases it resolved over eight years. From 2002 through 2009, police misconduct claims cost Albuquerque taxpayers $19.4 million, including about $9.4 million in legal costs.

The city’s winning percentage in police misconduct cases has been the same under Berry. The city won 30 of 91 police misconduct cases it resolved in the past two years. The total price for police misconduct cases for those two years: $11.4 million, including about $3 million in legal costs.

When Berry took office, he directed Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry, who was then city attorney, to review the no-settlement policy and decide whether considering officer misconduct claims on a case-by-case basis might work better.

Perry said the Berry administration inherited cases from Chávez that appeared as if they might cost the city millions in judgments, and so the decision was ultimately made to settle 59 cases. Two more were lost at trial – a 2009 officer-involved shooting and a 2002 civil rights claim in which a man was questioned in his home about a crime he was never suspected of committing.

The shooting case resulted in a $4.25 million judgment against APD – which was reduced to $417,000 because of a state law that caps payouts – and a stern dressing down from a state District Court judge who said the department’s policies are “designed to result in the unreasonable use of deadly force.”

Perry has noted that the Berry administration inherited all but five of the cases that resulted in payouts.

The city’s in-house attorneys are paid salaries, but they bill the city’s Risk Management division for hours worked. After Berry took office, that hourly rate was increased from $85 to $125.

The city also contracts out defense work in many police misconduct cases. In those instances, lawyers charge between $125 and $250 an hour.

The city is resolving a lot more cases each year under Berry than it did under Chávez, Perry said. Most of those cases have been resolved through settlements.

Perry said the city is getting more bang for the buck now.

For example, in 2004 under Chávez, the city spent $1.6 million to defend itself in seven police misconduct cases. Last year, under Berry, the city spent $1.7 million and resolved 48 cases.

Chávez’s no-settlement policy was slapped by a federal judge for gumming up the legal system and denying people their day in court.

In December 2008, U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo found that: “Refusing to make a good-faith effort to settle cases, while at the same time declining to devote the resources necessary to perform the additional trial work generated by this refusal, can be seen as an effort to avoid the burdens of litigation altogether so as to deprive the plaintiff of his day in court. Such a ‘no-litigation’ policy reflects a high degree of culpability, is unfairly prejudicial and interferes with the judicial process.”

Armijo’s 39-page opinion came in the lawsuit filed by Justin Graham over a March 23, 2004, incident at his home. A jury returned a verdict awarding Graham more than $35,000 in damages.

Armijo found that delays by the City Attorney’s Office in preparing the case for trial, coupled with the city’s “no settlement” policy in cases alleging police misconduct, left Graham with virtually no means of resolving his claims efficiently.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal