LAW$UIT CITY: Taxpayers paid $80M+ to resolve CPD misconduct lawsuits in 2023, records show

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, and Tom Jones WLS logo
Wednesday, July 3, 2024
Taxpayers paid $80M+ to resolve CPD misconduct suits in 2023: records
A majority of the $81 million total includes a mammoth dollar amount spent to resolve "reversed conviction" lawsuits filed by people who were arrested, convicted, and later declared innocent.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- New records show Chicago taxpayers are continuing to fund a seemingly endless stream of legal payouts in police misconduct cases.

In the last five years, Chicago taxpayers have paid out more than $378 million in CPD-related settlements, judgments, and other legal expenses, according to annual litigation reports prepared by the city's law department and reviewed by the I-Team.

According to the city's latest report, released last week, $81 million was paid in 2023 to resolve litigation against the Chicago Police Department.

A majority of that total includes a mammoth dollar amount spent to resolve "reversed conviction" lawsuits filed by people who were arrested, convicted, and later declared innocent.

City records show payouts for those kinds of lawsuits alone increased from $44 million in 2022 to $51 million in 2023.

"The taxpayers continue to be ill-served by the city's approach to these cases," said Ron Safer, a former federal prosecutor, now in private practice as a defense attorney.

Safer has represented individuals who were convicted but later legally exonerated, and have sued the city.

"The numbers are going in the wrong direction. The numbers are increasing. The settlements are increasing because they're not addressed at the inception of the case."

For years, the ABC7 I-Team has reported on the city's approach to lawsuits filed after reversed or wrongful convictions, including a decades-long pattern of practice to fight these cases for years, spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Safer believes the city could settle these cases earlier for a fraction of the cost.

"The city needs to take a more intelligent approach. Humanity has to enter into it," Safer explained. "At some point, the city has to say, 'Was this person wrongfully convicted?' If yes, let's compensate them at the beginning of the litigation. Let's pay them what they are owed and be done with it. Not pay attorneys to fight, fight, fight against them, and then ultimately pay a big verdict or a settlement amount."

In addition to reversed convictions, the I-Team also found lawsuit payouts for cases involving "unlawful pretrial detention" increased from $904,500 in 2022, to $2.5 million in 2023.

"Unlawful search and seizure" lawsuits, which includes misconduct cases stemming from CPD traffic stops turned searches of drivers and vehicles, increased from $1.1 million in 2022 to $1.2 million in 2023.

In all, during the past five years, the total amount of taxpayer money spent on police misconduct cases has grown: from $46 million in 2019, to $123 million in 2021, down somewhat to $81 million in 2023.

By any measure, it's a cash drain according to Deborah Witzburg, the city's inspector general who has looked into the continuing problem.

"This is a big money question," Witzburg told the I-Team. "The city is paying out tens of millions of dollars a year in settlements or judgments rising from lawsuits related to CPD."

Witzburg said what's most important is how the city chooses to respond to the numbers.

"If we are using those settlements and judgments to learn lessons about how to improve operations and how to manage the city's risks, then there's some return on those dollars. Then that looks more like an investment."

But, Witzburg continued, "If we are not learning any lessons to reduce risks going forward on the basis of litigation data, then we're just writing big check and we're missing expensive opportunities."

A spokesperson for the Chicago Law Department told the I-Team, "Under the consent decree entered in 2019, the City of Chicago is required to publish an annual report on Chicago Police Department (CPD) litigation, in order to inform the public about the outcomes of lawsuits against the City alleging civil rights violations by CPD members or injuries sustained due to vehicle pursuits by CPD members. The report sets forth cases resolved in 2023 through settlement, judgment, or dismissal."

To read the city's annual litigation reports, click here.

Among the eye-opening expenses for Chicago taxpayers in the latest lawsuit report are payouts starting to come in for police use-of-force allegations against CPD during the 2020 George Floyd protests.

An I-Team review of court records found more than $100,000 in 2023 was paid out to plaintiffs who sued the city based on CPD's response to the civil unrest.

With the Democratic National Convention around the corner, Safer hopes the city has learned from the past.

"The city's about to have another pivotal moment. The city has risen to the occasion before, when we had the NATO summit here. The city did very well, the police department did very well. But it's a crisis point," Safer said. "If we had a repeat of the '68 convention, it would bankrupt the city."