CHICAGO (STMW) – Chicago’s year-old strategy of going to trial with lawsuits against police officers instead of settling cases is paying off, city officials say.
Last fall, police Supt. Jody Weis notified Chief U.S. Judge James F. Holderman of the change in legal strategy.
“I have asked the Department of Law to litigate those cases which would have been settled [as] a matter of financial concern,” Weis said in a letter. “If plaintiffs know their complaint will in fact be litigated, more focus and concern will be given to the factual validity of the complaints signed.”
In the past, the city often settled “defensible” cases because the city’s legal expenses could far exceed the cost of a settlement. One reason for launching the new strategy was a concern by officers that settlements can reflect poorly on them even if they did nothing wrong, said Karen Seimetz, the city’s first assistant corporation counsel.
A year later, the results are “astonishing,” according to a report the Law Department prepared for this year’s City Council budget hearings. Lawsuits filed against cops — and settlements of lawsuits — have both fallen dramatically, the report said.
This year, the city anticipates that 50 percent fewer police misconduct cases will be filed than in 2009. The share of cases resolved through settlements has fallen from about 67 percent in 2009 to about 24 percent this year through the end of September, officials said.
Also, the city is projected to pay about $1.7 million to settle “small cases” against officers this year — compared with $9 million in 2007 and $9 million in 2008, the Law Department report said. Small cases are defined as those that are settled for less than $100,000 each, according to the city.
Those savings will more than offset the legal costs of taking the cases to trial instead of settling defensible cases, Seimetz said.
Small cases have been farmed out to outside lawyers for a bulk fee of $35,000 a case, plus a $15,000 bonus in the event of a trial win. That comes out to a little more than $5 million per year over the next two years to the outside lawyers, plus any bonuses that are paid out to them, Seimetz said. Those legal costs are expected to go down in future years as fewer cases are filed, she said.
“Over time, the word has gotten out,” she said. “We’re not settling cases like we used to.”
But Larry Jackowiak, an attorney who represents clients in lawsuits against the police, said he thinks the city will lose money because of the new strategy.
He said he was willing to settle one lawsuit for $10,000, but the city refused, the case went to trial and a jury awarded his client $7,500.
“They kept saying ‘no settlement, no settlement,” Jackowiak said. “Instead of paying $10,000, the city paid outside counsel $35,000, plus the $7,500 jury award, plus our attorney’s fees of $153,000. It makes no financial sense whatsoever.”
Jackowiak added that many of his clients who sue the police have criminal records.
“We know they have zero chance in front of the jury,” Jackowiak said. “We can’t do anything for them. The door has been slammed shut.”
Mark Donahue, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he didn’t want to comment on the strategy until he sees the numbers himself. But he said another reason lawsuits against the police are down could be that the FOP obtained legislation about six years ago requiring citizens to sign a sworn affidavit before making a formal complaint against an officer.
“That reduced complaints by 60 percent,” Donahue said. “That could have an impact on lawsuits. Frivolous complaints lead to frivolous lawsuits.”
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