Chicago's Police Misconduct Cases Go to Court

To cut costs and save face, all of Chicago's police misconduct cases are going to trial instead of settling out of court.

Photo: Zol87/Flickr CC
Zol87/Flickr CC
In 2009, Chicago’s court system was hopelessly clogged by cases alleging police misconduct. For years, the city’s Department of Law had watched as the number of misconduct allegations crept upward. With the increasing strain on municipal resources, Chicago’s attorneys were forced to settle many cases out of court, which reflected poorly on the city’s bottom line and police force.

But Chicago found a somewhat counterintuitive way to save money and save face -- by taking every single police misconduct case to court.

In July 2009, Chicago Superintendent of Police Jody Weis wrote to James F. Holderman, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, to notify him that the city would be changing its strategy for dealing with lawsuits filed against police officers. Rather than settling these cases out of court, the city would take them to trial.

"I have asked the Department of Law to litigate those cases which would have been settled [as] a matter of financial concern," Weis wrote. "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 other words, if plaintiffs knew they'd have to go before a jury, they'd be less likely to file frivolous misconduct cases. Plaintiff attorneys knew the city's reputation for settling out of court, and the Police Department thought the lawyers had come to view misconduct cases as easy wins.

After reviewing the city's settlement strategy, the Law Department came to the same conclusion that the police had. But there was a problem: Taking every case to court would require resources well beyond what the city could afford. Given the available staff, there simply was no practical, in-house way to try every case brought against an officer.

So the city turned to private-sector firms to find defense attorneys. The move wound up saving money. Thanks to the recession, the firms weren't picky with how they got paid. Rather than paying the lawyers an hourly rate, the city developed a bulk-case program. Any eligible law firm chosen by the city would receive a flat fee per case, plus a bonus if the city won the case. Firms hired by Chicago were required to build up each case and take it to trial -- they were prohibited from settling cases out of court. "By paying them that flat fee, that actually made this much more cost-effective for us," says Jennifer Hoyle, public affairs director for the Law Department.

The standing contract, which currently involves 14 different law firms, pays the firms $35,000 per case in monthly installments over two years, plus a $15,000 bonus for each win. Not every case goes to outside attorneys. The private firms mostly handle small-exposure cases -- those seeking damages of less than $100,000 -- which the city considers defensible.

The move is working better than anyone had anticipated. In the first year after the city began taking every case to court, the number of federal civil rights cases filed against police officers dropped by almost 50 percent. In addition, cases brought against officers are being voluntarily dismissed at higher rates. In 2009, about 18 percent of plaintiffs voluntarily dropped their case. By October 2010, nearly 46 percent of plaintiffs dropped their case. The Department of Law told the city that the results are "nothing short of astonishing."

Even when the city takes a case to trial, it's still paying less money than it had when it settled out of court. In 2010, the city was projected to pay approximately $1.7 million in case settlements. In 2008, it was $9 million. Farming out every single case to private counsel would still cost only about $5 million per year in flat fees and bonuses, so the city comes out ahead. The Law Department attributes the overall savings to the decreased number of lawsuits filed -- and it expects that downward trend to continue. If the number of cases continues to fall, so will the legal expenses.

The savings presented by the city have in some cases drawn criticism from plaintiffs' lawyers. The lawyers argue that they would have been willing to settle out of court for less than what was awarded to a plaintiff at trial. Add to this attorneys' fees and trial costs, and some have argued that the city loses money. However, the declining number of cases still leads to overall savings for Chicago.

The feedback from those most closely affected -- law enforcement officers -- has also been positive. They had long advocated for small federal civil rights cases to go to trial, in some instances arguing that settling the cases reflected poorly on individual officers' performance, especially if a trial would have proven that the officer had acted appropriately. As Weis stated in his 2009 letter to Holderman, officers had raised "concerns that their reputation is being tarnished, they are not allowed to clear their names, and, that criminal defendants are using civil litigation to either assist their criminal defense or to intimidate the officers from conducting lawful enforcement activity." Thanks to the new strategy, that mentality is changing.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.