April 27, 2015 5:00 pm

IG Plan to Track Suits Against Cops Hit by PBA

‘Meaningless’ Idea

By Mark Toor

PATRICK J. LYNCH: ‘No validity to eyeing frivolous suits.’  

The NYPD Inspector General recommended last week that the city track lawsuits against the department to “identify at-risk officers who may be in need of enhanced training or monitoring,” triggering a blast from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

“Given that many, if not most, of the lawsuits filed against NYC police officers are baseless, frivolous and only filed to make a quick buck, we don’t see where there is any validity to using them in evaluating the actions of individual officers,” said PBA President Patrick J. Lynch.

‘City Invites Suits’

“The increase in lawsuits is easily explained by the city’s past practice of settling baseless cases by doling out cash instead of fighting them in court. Using lawsuit data to review police performance will be meaningless.”

Roy Richter, president of the Captains’ Endowment Association, criticized the report in a column in the Daily News, saying much of the increase is due to Federal lawsuits that allege false arrests but not brutality.

“Not considered [in the IG’s report] are the tens of millions of dollars paid to plaintiff attorneys and their financial motivation in filing lawsuits,” he wrote. “Instead of ignoring cases that are dismissed by the court...there should be a recommendation that the Department of Investigation interview these plaintiffs to see if a pattern or practice of attorney misconduct exists when the cases are filed.”

The report by the IG—a position that was created by the City Council in 2013 over then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto as part of the battle to rein in stop-and-frisk—conceded that the Law Department has settled cases that might be “non-meritorious” to avoid the costs and uncertainty of a jury trial.

IG: Can Be Useful

But, it said, “when the correct litigation data is collected and used properly, it can help result in changes that benefit individual officers, the Police Department, community members and the city at large.”

“This report zeroes in on what the NYPD and other relevant agencies should do to advance the city’s interests in this important area,” said Commissioner of Investigation Mark G. Peters, who supervises the Police Department IG, Philip K. Eure.

Mr. Eure said that cities around the country have used information from lawsuits “to analyze trends in officer behavior that may have otherwise gone unidentified and unaddressed. By employing a similar examination of this data, the NYPD can track incidents in a more comprehensive way and make adjustments to its training and policies in response.”

Over the past five years, more than 15,000 lawsuits have been filed against the NYPD, a 44-percent increase over the previous five years, the report said. Most of the cases claim police misconduct, civil-rights violations or damage from accidents involving police vehicles. The total cost of the lawsuits to the city so far has been more than $202 million, according to the report. The IG’s goal is to cut those costs.

Can’t Pinpoint ‘Legit’ Claims

The NYPD, the Law Department and the Comptroller’s Office currently track various bits of data involving the lawsuits, but the picture is incomplete, the report said. “For example, there is no simple way to determine what percentage of the 15,000-plus lawsuits filed in the last five years resulted in legitimate findings of excessive force,” it said.

The report discusses an Early Intervention System that allows police departments to monitor individual police officers based on performance data such as use-of-force complaints, number of arrests made, awards and line-of-duty injuries. It stresses that information from lawsuits is only one source.

In fact, it outlined potential problems with litigation data: “Relatively few individuals ever file legal claims or lawsuits to begin with...Additionally, there is a tendency to allege as much as possible in initial complaints, the potential for inaccuracies in claims and evidence, and the fact that many lawsuits only assert charges against a ‘John Doe’ as opposed to against a particular officer.

“How and why cases are resolved is likewise not a perfect reflection of the claim; plaintiffs with strong claims may lose and those with weak claims may prevail.”

NYPD Intervention System

The report said the NYPD already tracks the performance and conduct of individual officers through its own Early Intervention System and a new Risk Management Bureau, using lawsuit data as well as information from the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“If an officer meets certain criteria demonstrating potential performance issues, then the officer is placed into one of three performance-monitoring levels,” the report said. Each level involves retraining and intensified supervision. “If an officer has had three or more lawsuits filed against him or her in the past 12 months, or six within the last five years, he or she is placed on Level Two monitoring,” according to the report.

Mr. Lynch has complained that officers are punished through performance-monitoring, delayed promotions and other measures while a lawsuit or CCRB complaint is adjudicated.

On the other hand, “in April 2014, NYPD removed from street duty an officer who reportedly had been sued 28 times and had cost the city at least $884,000 in settlements,” the report said.

The report recommended that the city should provide the public with information about monitoring efforts.

Kept in the Dark

It has been an article of faith within the NYPD rank and file that the Law Department settles complaints it probably could win in court as a way of keeping down legal costs and limiting the damage of a surprise jury verdict. Officers say—and the IG report confirms—that those involved in lawsuits are often not informed when suits are often filed against them or when those suits are settled.

Indignation over questionable settlements peaked in January when the New York Post reported that a man who was shot in the leg after threatening officers with a machete was given $5,000 to end his suit.

Mr. de Blasio said he would instruct the Law Department to be tougher when dealing with such suits. His preliminary budget provides $4.5 million to add 40 staffers to the department to fight them.