Cost of Minneapolis police payouts could hit record this year

Settling misconduct claims doubled in cost during the first three years of Police Chief Tim Dolan's leadership.

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Augustin Ganley won a $75,000 settlement after police pepper sprayed and slammed him face first on the trunk of a police cruiser in 2007.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The cost of settling police misconduct claims has doubled for incidents that occurred since Tim Dolan became Minneapolis police chief, even as the number of individual payouts has dropped.

This year, after a major jury award for the family of a mentally ill man slain by police, the city has paid out $3.3 million for a dozen claims that police went over the line, according to the city attorney's office. It's a pace that could make this a record year for police settlements.

Dolan says better training and legal work have lowered police misconduct claims to 12 to 15 each year, down from 20 to 30 annually before he became chief. Even some department critics credit him for taking a harder line on rogue cops.

But excluding two outsized settlements -- $2.19 million for the 2006 killing of Dominic Felder and $4.5 million for the 2003 shooting of undercover officer Duy Ngo -- the $90,395 average cost of police misconduct claims in Dolan's first three years was more than double what it was in the three years before he was named chief.

These are cases in which a wayward punch, a rough arrest or a Taser blast captured on video can cost the city's insurance fund five figures or more.

In an interview, Dolan said it didn't surprise him that settlements are higher, given the ever-rising price of litigation.

"The cost of doing business in that environment is going up dramatically," Dolan said. "It's very common now to see the 25 [thousand] to 50 [thousand] range. Even if you win, you're going to spend more than that on attorneys."

More accountability

Yet one man who sued police after his arrest during a demonstration says the city paid him double what he expected. During a Critical Mass bicycle rally in 2007, Augustin Ganley was pepper sprayed and slammed face first on the trunk of a police cruiser. He won $75,000 after suing to recoup $30,000 in legal fees from his dismissed criminal charges.

"We were trying to hold the police accountable," Ganley said about his lawsuit. "After all we went through, I expected them to be more stubborn. The decision making process, it's still a mystery to me."

A lawyer who has won $8 million in settlements and jury verdicts suing the Minneapolis police says it's not the lawyers' fault that costs are going up. Robert Bennett said he hasn't noticed a difference in how the city handles cases now that Dolan is chief.

"They don't do a very good job of disciplining their officers," Bennett said.

The rise in costs has gone largely unnoticed -- the city attorney's office said it hasn't seen any patterns in the settlement cases -- because most settlement claims are grouped by the year in which they get paid. So far this year, the city has cut checks for incidents that occurred in six of the past eight years. Some cases take a long time to wind through court. Some don't get filed immediately, because plaintiffs are allowed six years from the date of the original incident to sue the city.

It's only when cases are arranged by the year in which the incident took place that the sudden rise in costs becomes evident. In some of those, the cases are dominated by legal costs.

In 2008, Nicole Madison was standing outside a Warehouse District nightclub at 2 a.m. when she was punched in the face. She said it was officer Daniel Willis, but the officer denied it, saying he was pushing into the crowd to stop a fight.

Madison was cut on her cheek and needed stitches. She sued and the case went to trial. She eventually won a $20,000 award, but the city also had to pay her attorney's fees. The total bill: $296,490.

Settlement amounts don't necessarily reflect hospital bills or the severity of injury. In 2008, a man who was caught breaking into a car in a downtown parking garage was arrested by officer Sherry Appledorn. A video taken by a parking ramp security camera shows Appledorn struggling with the man as he lies face down on the pavement. The man, Nicholas Kastner, filed a lawsuit alleging he was stomped on, kicked at least a dozen times and shocked at least twice by a Taser. The suit alleged that Appledorn's partner, Joseph Will, also punched Kastner in the head. He suffered bruises on his back and shoulders.

Dolan later determined that the use of force was excessive. Appledorn was disciplined. Will was not. Kastner won a $75,000 settlement plus legal fees of another $50,000.

More misconduct?

A laceration on Meghan Wong's cheek resulted in an even larger settlement. In 2007, Wong was injured by an officer after she and two others were escorted out of a Warehouse District nightclub. She later sued. The eventual cost was $169,500.

Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said the settlement costs rose quickly because of the number of plaintiffs, the potential for emotional distress claims and a constitutional claim. In constitutional cases, the city can be forced to pay the plaintiff's attorneys fees. Wong's attorney was Bennett, who can be awarded fees of $500 an hour, Segal said.

Still, Segal said her office takes a tough stand on the claims and doesn't simply settle cases to make them go away. Since 2009, the city has prevailed in 38 cases and paid out in 39, her office reported.

So are the rising costs evidence of more misconduct? Attorney Paul Edlund thinks so. Business ramped up for him after he represented Derryl Jenkins, who won a $235,000 settlement after an in-car camera recorded the scene of officers punching and stomping him after a traffic stop in 2009.

Edlund has noticed more defendants facing misdemeanor charges showing up at his office for consultation sporting black eyes and stitches, he said.

"I've heard countless other clients share similar stories, but the incidents haven't been caught on video," Edlund said.

Improving training

The Jenkins case led to a new round of training within the department about when it's appropriate to kick to subdue a suspect.

"The Jenkins video definitely changed a lot, as far as what we do on the street," said Dolan.

City Council Member Cam Gordon praised Dolan for establishing an early warning system designed to identify potential problem officers and offer them training and counseling. Gordon, one of five council members who opposed Dolan's reappointment last year, credits the chief with firing more rogue officers than his predecessors without rankling the rank-and-file.

"Officers see him as an advocate and not someone who's out to get them," he said. "We should be welcoming complaints. If not, we could have stuff going on that we don't hear about."

Longtime American Indian Movement activist Clyde Bellecourt credits Dolan with taking a tougher stance on officer misconduct cases, but openly wondered how much officer behavior has changed.

Bellecourt was a member of the federally mandated Minneapolis Police Community Relations Council, which was created on the heels of several officer-involved shootings, one of which triggered a riot in north Minneapolis. The council dissolved in 2009 with much of its mission incomplete. Part of the reason was that citizen members were often swamped with concerns about police brutality. The only way to receive justice is to sue, Bellecourt said.

"The only thing they understand is when you hit them in the wallet," he said.

mckinney@startribune.com • 612-217-1747 corey.mitchell@startribune.com • 612-673-4491

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