by Jayson Hawkins
Their names became litanies on streets across America: Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Yet protests, relentless media coverage, and the promises of politicians failed to move the needle on police violence or impunity. At last, as protests has faded from the headlines, a player has come to the table with enough clout to demand cops change their ways —insurance companies.
Away from public scrutiny and the media circus that follows court settlements, every police agency (or government agency, for that matter) has a relationship with an insurer or risk pool. These insurers act much like a liability policy for a vehicle — if the agency gets into a metaphorical wreck for which it is at fault, the insurer covers the cost of the subsequent lawsuit or settlement. Many of these insurance companies grew out of municipal risk pools formed by big cities that eventually offered coverage to smaller towns. Most of these pools were privatized in the aftermath of the Reagan-era zeal for limited government, but some are still owned and operated as government agencies.
Those insurers that are private, for-profit enterprises are managed within the same business model as any other insurance company. They turn a profit by maximizing the collection of premiums (payments for coverage) and minimizing the payment of benefits (money awarded for a tort liability incurred by the policy holder). For most of these pools’ history, premiums were modest, deductibles (the out-of-pocket costs a policy holder pays before benefits kick in) were low, and payouts of benefits were exceptionally rare.
Up until 10 years ago, the largest category of benefit payouts was that provided to government employees injured on the job. The last decade, however, has brought about a sea change in the potential liabilities of police departments and the cities that employ them. Massive settlements in high-profile police killings grab all the headlines, which is understandable considering that lawsuits stemming from the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor resulted in payouts of $27 million and $12 million, respectively. It is the smaller (but more numerous), less publicized jury awards and settlements, however, that are driving change at many departments across the country.
The changes were rapid and drastic in St. Ann, Missouri. The small police department of 48 officers outside St. Louis had a no-nonsense policy when it came to vehicle pursuits, even for minor traffic violations. Chief of Police Aaron Jimenez proudly told reporters the department’s motto was “St. Ann will chase you until the wheels fall off.” Then in 2017 when officers were chasing a van with an expired license plate, the van struck another vehicle, leaving the driver permanently disabled. This crash was one of 20 in the two years leading up to 2017, and these accidents had left a dozen people injured.
Chief Jimenez was undeterred by the subsequent media attention and lawsuits, but when the St. Louis Area Insurance Trust threatened to cancel coverage if the department did not change its ways, Jimenez quickly, if grudgingly, relented. In 2019, St. Ann’s police chief banned high-speed pursuits far traffic infractions and minor, non-violent crimes.
“I didn’t really have a choice,” Jimenez lamented. “If I didn’t do it, the insurance rates were going to go way up. I was going to have to lose ten officers to pay for it.”
John Chasnoff, a local social justice activist who agitated for years against St. Ann’s chase policy, was happy about the change but disappointed that the decisive impetus was financial after the department had ignored the injuries they caused for so long. “It’s an indictment of St. Ann Police and their priorities that the voice of the insurers spoke louder than human lives,” he said.
Since the changes have taken effect, the number of pursuits has increased slightly, but crashes and injures are down. St. Ann officers are using technology like GPS sticky darts shot at the back of vehicles to nab motorists who run away, though overall arrests in the town have fallen by about 30%.
The St. Ann’s changes are part of a larger trend. Police in Vallejo, California, saw deductibles increase from $500,000 to $2.5 million per claim, and the department was forced to join a high-risk pool and institute a series of internal reforms. The biggest police risk pool in New Mexico has had to shrink coverage while increasing premiums by 60% since 2022 because of use-of-force claims. The pool also had to hire an instructor to conduct mandatory de-escalation training throughout the state. The risk pool that covers 30 of 33 sheriff’s departments saw rates rise 50% since 2019.
Big departments are often shielded from this type of pressure because they can draw from a large tax base to cover liability costs. But even the largest agencies have begun to feel the pain of ever-increasing settlements and jury awards. The Washington Post reported that over the past 10 years, $3.2 billion has been spent at the nation’s 25 largest police and sheriff’s departments to resolve some 40,000 claims. The trend towards larger pay-outs is likely to continue or even accelerate as police and their lawyers face jurors who are increasingly skeptical of cops and their sometimes questionable tactics. This shift has led to an unprecedented rise in pre-trial settlements.
“It’s been such a shift, and it’s happened so quickly,” said Izaak Schweiger, an attorney specializing in civil rights cases against police. “The last time I went to a settlement conference, the city basically told me they were going to capitulate to what I demanded. That never used to happen before.”
It is unclear how far the new trends will go, or how lasting the effects will be, but there have already been a few remarkable developments. In Springfield, Oregon, multiple complaints and settlements stemming from excessive force by police led to an impasse that ended in the city’s insurance risk pool assuming a direct oversight role of the police. In 2019, the shooting at an unarmed motorist marked the culminating crisis point after five years during which the city paid $8.5 million for misconduct. The insurance deductible for the city was set to jump from $100,000 to $250,000, and when the city could not find another insurer, they were forced to come to the table and negotiate change.
The department agreed to mandatory de-escalation training, a new review process for use-of-force incidents, and an awards program for officers who lead the way in conflict resolution that does not involve violence. The track record of the department since the reforms were put in piece in 2019 has been mixed, but compared to the general treads of resistance to reform in most departments, there is significant cause for optimism.
More than a little exasperation exists on all sides with how these changes are coming about. Activists are frustrated that insurance costs moved the needle when the cost in human lives barely made it budge, and police are unhappy that their discretion has been so severely curtailed.
It is, however, the results that matter, as even St. Ann Police Chief Jimenez has had to recognize. “One of the things I’ve had to come to terms with is, since we changed our pursuits, our accidents are way down,” he admitted. “We are doing a better job of keeping the public and our officers safe.”
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