Associated Press, Published July 21 2013
St. Paul pays $1 million in 2012 for police lawsuits
Of the eight lawsuits settled in 2012, half the incidents occurred during Chief Thomas Smith's tenure, which started in 2010. The other half were during John Harrington's time as chief. His six-year term started in 2004.
The total costs — settlement amounts, city attorney staff time and court costs — were almost $800,000 in the Smith cases and more than $230,000 in the Harrington cases, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
One case that was settled for $400,000 involved a woman who suffered serious burns when police used a flash-bang device while executing a search warrant at her home.
In another case, a man who ran from police wound up with a skull fracture, gashes on his head that required 21 staples to close and burns to his face caused by chemical spray. The city settled his lawsuit, which alleged that officers used excessive force, for $249,000.
The recent large payouts have been to people with significant injuries, said City Attorney Sara Grewing. But she said larger conclusions shouldn't be drawn from the recent cases because the decision to settle a lawsuit is "based on what's in the best interest of the city in terms of dollars and cents."
"In my office, we look at these cases through the eyes of a future jury and a future judge," Grewing said. "And what they see and how they view the case is very different than the judgment calls that a police officer makes at 2:00 in the morning in the middle of the city."
Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP, wants greater accountability for police officers.
"There's got to be some equity in the system — if you're an officer who cost the city some money, you should be held to a higher standard, whether that's losing your job or maybe some of your pension," he said.
The Pioneer Press analyzed lawsuits alleging St. Paul police misconduct or excessive force that were settled from 2004 to the present. Three of the four largest settlements stemmed from incidents during Smith's tenure.
Smith said three cases arose soon after he took over the department in June 2010, and he said he's made changes since then.
After becoming chief, Smith said, he increased the amount of use-of-force training and improved it to keep officers and the public safe. The department also made policy changes, including regarding use of Tasers.
Police in St. Paul make thousands of arrests a year "and very few of these cases" lead to lawsuits, Smith said.
"Regardless of what happens with officers — whether it happens with lawsuits, complaints or whatever — I never want to take away their flexibility to defend themselves and the public," Smith said. He said he doesn't want his officers to "worry that they're going to be sued."
St. Paul is self-insured and settlement costs come out of the city's tort liability fund.
In 2011, Minneapolis paid an average of about $239,000 in 17 lawsuits with an officer-conduct-related claim, compared with an average of about $70,000 in five cases claiming misconduct in St. Paul. In 2012, Minneapolis paid an average of about $46,000 in 16 cases, while St. Paul's average was more than $113,000 for eight cases.