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Chicago Pays $40 Million Per Year to Private Firms to Defend Police Violence Cases

by Jo Ellen Nott

Police misconduct is costing the city of Chicago nearly $40 million a year in outside legal fees. Although the city has its own in-house counsel to handle legal problems, it outsources many cases involving police violence. Defense attorney Andrew Stroth claims those outside firms are prolonging litigation unnecessarily to bill as many hours as possible to the taxpayer.   

While pouring over public records, ABC News investigators discovered that over the last five years Chicago paid approximately $40 million per year to private law firms instead of hiring more attorneys for its legal department. The cost for outside counsel per year is about the same as the budget for the entire legal department per year. Stroth believes “the City of Chicago is spending millions of dollars defending indefensible cases.”

Mark Flessner was the city’s top legal eagle until mayor Lori Lightfoot asked him to resign in 2020. Before being asked to leave, Flessner was working with city council members to hire more in-house attorneys. Flessner’s goal was to save Chicago $40 to $50 million a year in legal fees since outsourcing a case costs five times more than having the city’s legal department handle it. 

The Lowell Houser case is a prime example of Stroth and Flessner’s concerns. Houser, a former Chicago police officer, shot and killed 38-year-old Jose Nieves in 2017 while he was off-duty. Nieves was not carrying a weapon. Houser was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Andrew Stroth represented the Nieves family in their suit against Houser and the City of Chicago.

Victims say the drawn-out litigation process the city makes possible by its use of outside counsel is traumatic. The Nieves family eventually received a $1.9 million settlement after five long years. The ABC News investigative team found through its analysis of data from a public records request that Chicago paid almost $1 million in taxpayer money to outside firms to litigate the Houser case.

Critics of the wasteful spending are pushing for a policy to analyze civil rights filings and identify those that could be resolved quickly. Sheila Bedi, Northwestern law professor and Director of Community Justice Center, says fixing the problem will “require the political will to prioritize making survivors whole and to conserve taxpayer dollars.”

As of February 23, 2023, the City of Chicago Legal Department has 276 attorney positions with 39 of those vacant.

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