Enstrom: Death by Police Officer, How You Might Be Paying for It

Porter Enstrom is an undergraduate student at Georgia State University studying business economics and the philosophy of criminal justice.

The killing of George Floyd sparked national outrage and focused the country’s attention on police reform, yet many Americans believe “if you didn’t do anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.” These Americans are being deceived because far too often police officers are shielded from liability and we, the tax paying citizens, are forced to pick up the tab for their misconduct.

The time has come to require police officers to purchase personal liability insurance and stop paying for their egregious abuse of power that often violates our constitutional rights.

We would rightfully expect law enforcement with a history of misconduct to be disciplined by their respective departments, yet Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2017 and found 72% of police officers believe poorly performing officers are not held accountable. 

If we can’t trust police departments to hold officers accountable, surely police officers can be sued for damages when they violate our rights, right? Wrong.

Joanna Schwartz, Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, found that 99.98% of dollars paid to victims of civil rights violations were by governments and not by the individual officer. This payment scheme is unfair to tax paying citizens and produces almost zero incentive for police departments to correct officer behavior.

Not only is this behavior dangerous, it’s extremely expensive for the taxpayer.

In 2006, 92 year old Kathryn Johnston was shot and killed by three Atlanta police officers executing a “no knock” warrant at her residence in West Atlanta. It was later found that one officer planted bags of marijuana in the house – this led to all three officers pleading guilty to federal charges of “conspiracy to violate civil rights resulting in death.”

In 2010, a lawsuit against the Atlanta Police Department on behalf of Ms. Johnston was settled for $4.9 million, all paid for by city taxpayers through indemnification.

The fact of the matter is that private insurance companies mitigate risk far better than any police department can even hope to accomplish.

Insurance companies have profit incentives to reduce risk of law enforcement behavior by imposing stricter sets of rules, identifying best practices, increasing premiums or even rewarding good behavior with discounts. 

John Rappaport, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, researched how insurance companies regulate police departments and found that “insurers prioritize policies on certain high-risk matters such as the use of force, vehicle hot pursuit, domestic violence, and the handling of intoxicated or mentally ill individuals.”

If an officer repeatedly engages in misconduct – insurance companies would naturally raise premiums or impose a deductible in order to disincentivize bad behavior and mitigate their risk of coverage. This process is called loss prevention. 

Loss prevention can include rewarding officers and departments for good behavior. John Rappaport found that law enforcement agencies who participated in accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), a non-profit focused on certifying and auditing police departments, were given premium discounts from 20% to 25%

Some insurers decrease payments for non-conventional programs such as “Coffee with a Cop” to build community trust and mitigate risk. Blaming officers for police misconduct is easy but fixing the structural problems of accountability is where true progress can be made.

The truth is if you didn’t do anything wrong, then you might not have anything to worry about – unless you pay taxes. Insurers will provide the necessary check and balance that government – so far, has failed to do. Our communities deserve better than to be handed a bill for millions of dollars’ worth of misbehavior. 

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