Can Insuring the Police Stem Misconduct?

An unusual campaign in Minnesota has attracted nationwide interest.
(Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/'The Christian Science Monitor' via Getty Images)
Sep 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Sometimes it seems there are almost as many suggestions for how to discourage police misconduct as there are new headlines describing violent encounters between police and civilians. Officer-worn body cameras, better data collection, decreasing police presence, and reducing the use of military-grade equipment are just a few ideas that have been floated or put into practice in the last several years as the names of victims—Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and the latest, Tyre King—continue to flood in.

One unusual suggestion surfaced this year in Minneapolis, where a team of activists and community organizers tried—and failed—to mandate professional liability insurance for police officers. The campaign, which was organized by a group called the Committee for Professional Policing, argued that if individuals were required to pay out of pocket for the rising costs of premiums associated with their misconduct, police would be less likely to engage in bad behavior.

“We as [Minneapolis] taxpayers pay roughly $2.5 million per year for bad police misconduct,” the group’s founder, Michelle Gross, told TakePart. “We started thinking there has to be a better answer to this problem.”

The fatal shooting of Jamar Clark by a Minneapolis police officer in March drew the nation’s eyes to Minnesota and resulted in a Justice Department investigation. In June, the department announced that it would decline to bring civil rights charges against the two officers connected with Clark’s death. This was one of many disappointments that led Gross and her fellow activists to believe a creative, systemic approach was necessary to spark change.

After collecting 15,000 signatures for an initiative that would have put the police insurance amendment on the city’s ballot—they only needed 5,000—Gross felt optimistic. In July, City Attorney Susan Segal ruled the proposal would be illegal under state law. The group appealed to the state Supreme Court, which upheld Segal’s ruling in late August. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the local union, was pleased with the court’s decision. “This was a harebrained idea to begin with,” he said in an interview with TakePart.

“This widespread misconduct and corruption that they talk about doesn’t exist,” Kroll continued, saying that he believes Gross to be “mentally unstable.”

In spite of the initiative’s major setback, the concept appeals to police reform advocates around the country. Samuel Sinyangwe, a policy analyst who works with the anti–police violence group Campaign Zero, told TakePart that liability insurance could be “an important component of a broader systemic approach that…ensures department-wide accountability.”

Sinyangwe points out that some cities require misconduct settlements to come out of police department budgets rather than the city’s coffers, which imposes a greater burden on police. The threat of financial liability on departments or individuals could discourage misconduct more acutely than broader reforms, some advocates argue.

“Officers aren’t on the financial hook right now,” said Seth Stoughton, a former Florida police officer turned professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “More than 98 percent of the time, a police union, department, or the city indemnifies litigation costs that fall on individual officers.”

Though Gross said her campaign consulted with insurance and legal experts when crafting the amendment, the court’s ruling emphasizes how challenging it may be to mandate individual liability insurance. Stoughton expressed concern that in practice, departments or city agencies might continue to pay the rising costs of premiums as part of an officer’s benefits package.

“I don’t know that it’s politically feasible anywhere to prohibit agencies or municipalities from paying those costs,” said Stoughton. Beyond political roadblocks, individual officers aren’t likely to have the kind of money that might be required in a court settlement, or even to shoulder premium costs. Still, Stoughton emphasized that this kind of “experimental” campaign is a valuable approach to addressing a long-standing problem in policing.

“This kind of out-of-the-box thinking is what needs to happen, because we have a number of systemic or structural issues that contribute to police problems,” he said.

Setbacks aside, Gross and her team are moving forward with their campaign outside Minneapolis. Because city charters vary greatly, they think they might have better luck pushing forward an amendment in St. Paul or Bloomington. Gross said she is also consulting with organizers in cities such as Las Vegas, Ferguson, Missouri, and Oakland, California, where she said liability insurance campaigns are being considered.

“People talk about bad cops and good cops,” said Gross. “This is about a bad system that validates bad policing and allows it to go on. This would provide better protection for those officers who do not engage in bad conduct.”