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Police can take steps to minimize excessive force claims

Police can take steps to minimize excessive force claims

ATLANTA — Municipalities cannot afford to be reactive when it comes to dealing with cases dealing with excessive force by police, two analysts said Tuesday.

Elizabeth Capek, Chicago-based vice president claim client manager at Munich Reinsurance America Inc., and Catalina Sugayan, a partner at the Sedgwick L.L.P. law firm in Chicago, stressed this issue during at session at the Public Risk Management Association's Annual Conference in Atlanta.

“In the world of law enforcement, you have to think proactively, not reactively,” Ms. Capek said. “You have to think professionalism and not react, because liabilities are hurting you and costing you money.”

To illustrate her point, Ms. Capek shared a quote with the audience: “That which promotes professionalism reduces liability, and that which reduces liability promotes professionalism.”

“Liability is what's pushing the change and not professionalism,” she said. “Think about if the plaintiffs lawyers didn't go after Ford for the exploding gas tanks. Would they have changed those gas tanks?”

The presentation covered such issues as stop and frisk, the use of body cameras and issues surrounding citizens who record police officers.

“We all know that this is a very complicated issue,” Ms. Sugayan said. “We have to balance our need for public safety with protecting privacy and other interests. We have to add to that concerns about politics, fiscal constraints and race relations.”

The two presenters discussed several excessive force cases that have made the headlines, including Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore, and Laquan McDonald's death in Chicago.

However, Ms. Capek noted that lesser-known cases that do not make the national news are the ones costing public entities time and money.

“The ones that don't get into media,” she said, “that are not as flashy, they're the ones costing time and expense.”

Ms. Capek said that Chicago residents have paid over $521 million for police brutality cases in 10 years. with about 500 more cases pending. Most of these cases did not result in fatalities, she said, but 124 of them involved what she called “repeat offenders”: officers who appear in three or four complaints. There were 124 of these cases, she said, which cost the city $34 million.

“In my opinion, that clearly is a sign,” Ms. Capek said. “You've got an issue. When you see that repeated offender, that is a clear sign that you've got some things that have to be worked on.”

Ms. Capek discussed the pros and cons of equipping officers with body cameras. On the one hand, the camera can have a positive effect on both the police officer and the individual, if they both know they are being recorded. The cameras also help with collecting evidence and improve transparency with the community.

On the other hand, cost is the biggest issue with bodycams, Ms. Capek said, and not just for the cameras themselves, but for storing the footage, ongoing training and potential privacy complaints.

Ms. Capek said inadequate training is the root of any excessive force case, as many departments do not provide proper training in the handling of suspects.

Both Ms. Capek and Ms. Sugayan stressed the importance of accountability when dealing with excessive force cases.

“If there is no accountability, you're not going to fix the problem,” Ms. Capek said. “You have to make sure that when an officer disregards certain policies, that there are repercussions. If you're found to have disregarded your policies and procedures, then you've gone down the rabbit hole, and you're not getting back up.”

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