So admittedly, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over four years now, but still know far too little about its history. I have made some progress since first moving here. A major milestone for me was watching recently a phenomenal documentary on Netflix called LA 92 that went in deep on the Rodney King Riots and how those events played out in the nineties. It laid out an almost thirty-year cycle of riots occurring in Los Angeles in response to police brutality. It began in the 60s, reemerged in the 90s, and has again reemerged in the last few years.
Lately, I’ve been feeling this familiar beat of history more acutely than ever. We know that history repeats itself and that it rhymes, but does anyone care? That’s what I’m trying to figure out, and right now, it’s hard to believe that is the case. We have been paying for the same mistakes over and over again for decades. This is story is just the latest example.
The AP reports that LA County will pay $14 million to settle a lawsuit that accused the Sheriff’s department of improperly holding tens of thousands of immigrants in jail beyond their release date. According to the AP, “The lawsuit alleged that between 2010 and 2014, the Sheriff’s Department routinely held people in jail for days, weeks or even months beyond the dates of their release and refused to allow them to post bail solely because of immigration detention requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
To our current Sheriff’s credit, Alex Villanueva wasn’t Sheriff when these unconstitutional arrests occurred, and in August, he permanently banned inmate transfers from Los Angeles County jails to ICE unless they obtain a judicial warrant. These arrests occurred during Lee Baca’s tenure as Sheriff.
Lee Baca is a name that keeps popping up on the periphery for me, most notably because he reported to prison this past February for lying to the FBI and attempting to cover up horrible abuses at county jails.
What this settlement tells me though is that abuse can be costly, and my tax money is going towards settling a lawsuit that alleges abuse that occurred before I lived in Los Angeles. I say this not to demean the lawsuit, those immigrants had every right to sue. I say this as an indictment of our policing, of our immigration system, and of our criminal justice system.
Because we see this kind of thing over and over again. Police departments infringing on rights, treating people inhumanely, even killing people, and there is little reform. Instead, a payout goes out using taxpayer money, and then nothing changes. Cities across the country routinely pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year in settlement money to resolve police misconduct lawsuits, with little reflection on what went wrong.
Settlements like this one happen so often and so routinely that these costs have quietly become simply the price of operating and managing a police department. For Los Angeles County alone, according to the County Counsel Annual Litigation Cost Report, annual litigation expenses during the 2018–2019 fiscal year totaled $148.5 million. This money was used to satisfy 16 court judgments against the county and settle an additional 240 lawsuits against them. Out of the almost $150 million in litigation costs, the Sheriff’s department’s litigation fees represented $81,485,430.
Astounding. Like, really. And that’s just one year!
So what’s the solution? Well, have the cities tried not getting sued so much? It may seem facetious, but I’m serious. Lessons need to be learned by these cities, and real meaningful change has to be implemented. The kind of change that radically reimagines the role of policing in general. A role that costs less, but is more targeted and effective, because the facts don’t lie. The cost of policing has skyrocketed in recent years. Bloomberg commissioned a study from the Urban Institute that found that “Over the past four decades, the cost of policing in the U.S. has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.”
Most of this money is spent by local and county governments and most of it goes towards payroll for the officers. This is also amid an all-time low in crime generally. So the question must be asked: why do we keep paying police departments more and more money year after year, shield them from accountability by paying off anyone who complains, and give them a job that is getting easier and easier as well?
Also, what other things could we spend that money on?