California taxpayers have had to foot the bill for dozens of court settlements and judgments involving California Highway Patrol Officers after interactions with the public that resulted in civil rights lawsuits being filed. NBC Bay Area’s investigation of state records found that the majority of the officers involved in those lawsuits remain on the force a year or more after the cases are settled.
Under current state law there is no way to determine whether or not any of those officers were disciplined, re-trained or even investigated internally for the behavior that resulted in taxpayer payout to the citizens.
After a spate of highly publicized incidents involving use of force, communities across the country seek more oversight and accountability from their local law enforcement agencies. Now, these records uncovered by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit have some critics raising questions about the state agency responsible for keeping our highways safe.
NBC Bay Area reviewed all settlements and judgments against the California Highway Patrol stemming from civil rights lawsuits alleging mistreatment by officers. Since January, 2006, a total of 45 cases cost taxpayers more than $25 million ($25,428,032.09) in judgments and legal fees.
Still, State Senator Loni Hancock, who represents the East Bay, told NBC Bay Area she was troubled to learn how much these lawsuits cost state taxpayers.
“That indicates we’re wasting the taxpayers’ money,” Hancock said.
As Chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, Senator Hancock has been raising the issue of law enforcement accountability for years in Sacramento. California is one of the few states in the nation that does not reveal police officer discipline records.
While it is unclear whether the officers involved in these cases were disciplined, NBC Bay Area reviewed state salary data and found that many of officers remained on the force years after the allegations of abuse were filed.
NBC Bay Area tracked 53 officers named in the 45 lawsuits. According to public employee salary data for 2015, at least 33 of those officers remain on the force.
CHANGES AT CHP
CHP Commissioner Joseph Farrow acknowledges there’s a rift between many communities and law enforcement, but says his agency is working to bridge that gap.
“The more information I provide, I think the better off we are at the end of the day,” Farrow said. “To the average person that [$25 Million] is a lot of money. I think in all those cases I think you did assume that nothing was done, no training, no lessons learned, and I don't think that's true at all.”
Farrow says that force is rarely used during traffic stops. In 2015, Farrow says his officers made more than 4 million contacts with the public statewide, which resulted in only 791 use of force incidents.
In addition, statistics show his agency saw a dramatic decline in citizen complaints in recent years. It is a stat Commissioner Farrow believes demonstrates progress in the right direction.
"Within our organization I think a lot of things are being done. There are teachable moments. There is a lot of training that is being conducted and I think that's important for people understand. [Just] because one doesn't always see the end result, you can’t assume that nothing is done,” Farrow said.
TRANSPARENCY IN LAW ENFORCEMENT
But we have to take Commissioner Farrow’s word for it since all discipline, re-training, and firings remain secret and blacked out from public scrutiny in California. It’s a system that bothers critics like civil rights attorney Micaela Davis with the ACLU.
“We need accountability at all levels of law enforcement,” Davis said. “When there's a huge settlement like this, it told us that the department must've had serious concerns with the officers’ behavior in that case, that what we really need to do is make sure the public is able to see what action the department took to correct that behavior and punish that officer.”
That’s exactly why State Senator Mark Leno wants to make law enforcement internal disciplinary records public.
“To know nothing is to breed suspicion,” Leno said. The State Senator is currently sponsoring a bill to release all records about sustained complaints against police officers.
“It’s twenty five million dollars that we’re not spending on education or on health care,” Leno said of the legal payments. “We've got to make some changes. And the basic belief system here is more information is better. Transparency is a positive thing and results in greater safety, greater trust, better communities.”
Although similar attempts to change the law have previously failed, Senator Leno believes the time is right now to pass these reforms.