“Five years ago, NBA guard Thabo Sefolosha was standing outside a nightclub when he was tackled by five New York Police Department officers, one of whom broke his leg with a baton.
Sefolosha sued, and the city paid its largest settlement for alleged police brutality in years, $4.5 million. After all, Sefolosha had to have surgery and couldn’t play basketball for a year. And a jury had acquitted Sefolosha of the charges against him for allegedly resisting arrest. The whole incident had been caught on tape.
But the payout — which didn’t cost the officers a dime — is where any accountability ended. The city had insisted during the case that the officers were blameless, and they ended up facing no significant punishment.
It’s left Sefolosha frustrated. “To get a settlement was a small victory. But big picture, it’s a small drop,” Sefolosha told ProPublica from his home in Vevey, Switzerland. “When are people going to be held accountable? You have to have repercussions. They’re going to do it over and over again.”
New York City has paid more than $1 billion over the past five years to settle lawsuits against the NYPD, according to data released by the city. ProPublica examined dozens of the biggest payouts in cases where civilians had also filed complaints with the city agency that reviews alleged police abuse. Again and again, the officers faced minimal or no discipline.
In one case, the city paid out $125,000 when officers allegedly fractured someone’s cheekbone with a flashlight. The officers were not disciplined. In another case, officers allegedly bashed in a man’s car window with a baton, then broke his ankle dragging him from the vehicle and charged him with resisting arrest. The charges were dropped and the city paid $460,000 to settle. The officers again faced no discipline.
In the 45 cases we examined, the harshest penalty any officer received was a loss of 15 vacation days — for punching a teenager and knocking him unconscious in an incident caught on tape that went viral. The city settled that case for $200,000.”
“Over the past seven years, at least 800 officers have been named as defendants in five or more suits settled by the city.”
“In a few cases reviewed by ProPublica, the city has defended officers who seem to have lied or engaged in what was clearly misconduct.”
“Byrne dismissed the idea that settlements can be useful in identifying problematic officers. “My belief is the settlement means nothing,” he said. Settlements often happen when the city decides lawsuits are not worth fighting and “not because the officer did anything wrong.”
But at times, the Law Department’s ferocious approach to defending the NYPD has drawn criticism from judges handling the cases. In one case, a federal judge in Manhattan admonished the NYPD for not having turned over evidence in a case where a man died after being tackled by police outside Yankee Stadium.
The city’s lawyers had long claimed that there were no recorded radio calls from the incident. When the judge insisted the head of the NYPD’s legal bureau sign an affidavit attesting to that, the calls suddenly turned up.”