Can mandatory insurance solve the problem of police violence?

Can mandatory insurance solve the problem of police violence? | Insurance Business America

Can mandatory insurance solve the problem of police violence?
Insurance agents could be selling individual professional liability policies to police officers if proposals in certain cities are adopted.

Allegations of police brutality and abuse are on the rise across the country, with a related spike in lawsuits against police departments. And those at the center of the storm pay for it – Chicago alone has spent more than half a billion dollars in settlements related to inappropriate or illegal force by police officers since 2004.

Yet citywide lawsuits haven’t done much to curb bad police behaviors, activists say. Instead, those pushing for change are looking to personal professional liability insurance requirements.

“We are working to get a measure on the ballot that would require police officers to carry professional liability insurance,” said Michelle Gross, a Minneapolis activist and member of a group called the Committee for Professional Policing.

While individual liability insurance for police officers is available, it is carried on a voluntary basis. Proposals like the one pushed by Gross’ group would make it a condition of employment in the city. The city would cover the cost of basic insurance, but the individual officer would pick up the tab on any premium increases due to misconduct.

Dave Bicking, another member of the ballot campaign, said the proposal would weed out the worst offenders by charging them unaffordable premiums.

“We have once officer [in Minneapolis] who’s had five significant settlements against him just in a year and a half,” Bicking told NPR. “Someone like that could never, ever buy insurance. They’d have to charge him $60,000 to $70,000 a year. That officer would be gone.”

This isn’t the first time insurance has been called on to curb the problems of inappropriate policing. A University of Chicago report released this spring says insurers are attempting to limit the liability of the police departments they cover by providing risk management materials to insureds.

“One of the first things I found was this pamphlet from Travelers Insurance about how to do a strip search, and I just thought people in my world have no idea that this stuff is out there and it’s really fascinating,” said University of Chicago assistant law professor John Rappaport.

Another law professor featured in the article, Joanna Schwartz of UCLA, also argues that “insurers can play the role of an honest broker to force a city to learn from its police department's mistakes.”

"They are highly motivated to reform because it affects their bottom line, and they're not constrained by any of the political counterforces that could prevent the city council or mayor from pushing hard on a law enforcement agency to reform," Schwartz said.

Yet both ideas have received pushback.

By placing much of the financial strain on insurers, rather than police departments, some argue that the pressure to reform officer practices is too indirect to effect meaningful change.

As for the push for personal liability insurance, police departments say the practice would cause police officers to be overly cautious in an attempt to avoid premium increases.

“Anybody can get in the squad car and drive around and put the blinders on, and not investigate suspicious circumstances,” said Lt. Bob Kroll of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. “If you don’t do that proactive police work, your likelihood of being sued is a lot less.”

Additionally, police unions in Minneapolis and other cities say city councils are quick to pay damages, even on frivolous complaints, in order to avoid the ensuing litigation costs. That would unfairly ramp up insurance premiums on officers, they allege.

Rappaport, however, says he “loves” the proposal.

“This moment is really causing people to be interested in shaking things up,” he told NPR. “I don’t know whether this is the right answer or not…but we won’t ever know until someone tries it and we get a chance to see how it works.”

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