Horseman beaten by California police paid $650,000. A best practice?

Francis Pusok will receive $650,000 after his brutal encounter with California deputies was caught on camera. Who winds up paying such bills?

Rick Sforza/The Sun/AP
San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon speaks to the media about the police's encounter with Francis Pusok.

After avoiding arrest, fleeing on a horse, and being beaten by deputies, 30-year-old Francis Pusok will receive a $650,000 settlement to avoid a lawsuit.

In early April, 10 California deputies were placed on paid leave after a video recorded by a TV news crew showed the police using excessive force on Mr. Pusok, who did not appear to resist arrest. The quick settlement raises the question of whether this is the best way to deal with cases of potential excessive force.

The ten deputies chased Pusok for two and a half hours after attempting to serve him a search warrant. He first fled by car, then by a stolen horse. Pusok fell from the horse, and remained face down on the ground. The video shows two deputies approaching him, then kicking his body and punching his head. Throughout the encounter, which lasted about two minutes, as many as 11 deputies hit or punched the suspect.

At the time, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said the encounter, captured by a KNBC-TV helicopter, did not follow protocol. The officers were subsequently placed on leave.

“I'm asking for some patience while we complete a thorough and fair investigation,” McMahon said, reported the Associated Press. “I am disturbed and troubled by what I see in the video. It does not appear to be in line with our policies and procedures.”

San Bernardino County supervisors approved the settlement, as a result of a federal civil rights investigation. The agreement would settle all potential civil claims, but does not affect internal, criminal, or civil rights investigations, reported the Associated Press.

Attorney Matt McNicholas, who is not involved in Pusok’s case but has represented victims of force, said the agreement is the best case for both parties that would be involved in a lawsuit, and a fiscally responsible decision.

“It ended up, I believe, saving the taxpayers money and probably putting more money in the plaintiff's pocket,” Mr. McNicholas said, reported the Associated Press.

And fiscally responsible it may be. According to a study published in New York University Law Review, individual police officers often do not pay the settlement or lawsuit costs. Approximately 99.98 percent of money plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement was paid by municipal governments. From the 81 police departments included in the study, $730 million was paid in settlements and damages between 2006 and 2011. The settlement payments typically come from insurance or the city’s general fund.

Critics argue that not having police departments foot the bill removes consequences from excessive force by police. Aviva Shen of Think Progress argued that ultimately taxpayers are the ones who suffer in these situations. She wrote:

Because cities insulate police officers and departments from the financial consequences for their actions, police on the street have little incentive to avoid unnecessary force, and their departments may not feel the need to crack down on repeat offenders. And so the bill for taxpayers keeps growing.

In a time of social sensitivity and heightened awareness of police use of excessive force, the growing price tag of legal challenges may be another incentive for police departments to reform how they train their officers.

Philadelphia, which has paid $40 million in damages and settlements since 2009, is one city working to reform the way officers are trained in using force. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey spoke in December about the need to address tactics and better train officers to handle high stress situations:

We found oftentimes officers were not using the very best tactics in approaching some of these dangerous situations, and if the tactics were perhaps better, than the outcomes would have been different … Not only do they have to demonstrate that they’re going to use good, sound tactics to protect themselves and other innocent people, but that they’re making the right kinds of judgments as it relates to use of force or less than lethal technology they have available to them.

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