Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
With the NYPD costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year in lawsuit settlements over misconduct claims, City Council members on Wednesday questioned the city’s Law Department about its approach to defending the police department and whether the city could benefit from being less combative when taken to court for police misconduct.
A Legal Aid Society analysis released in February found that the city paid $121 million in 2022 to settle lawsuits over allegations of NYPD misconduct, the highest amount in five years and $34 million more than in 2021. Among the payouts were high-profile cases that made up significant amounts of the settlements, including a $13 million settlement paid to Muhammad Aziz, who was wrongfully convicted in the assassination of Malcolm X and spent more than 20 years in prison. Seven other settlements ranged from $10.5 million to $13 million.
The city has also paid millions in lawsuits stemming from the police response to Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd, which prompted hundreds of complaints against the NYPD, and led to 226 full investigations by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an oversight agency.
At Wednesday’s City Council hearing on Mayor Eric Adams’ preliminary budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1, Council members had tough questions about those settlements for the Law Department, which represents the city and its agencies in legal matters.
Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix, who runs the Law Department as appointed by the Mayor, sought to explain why the city paid out more in settlements in the last fiscal year than in recent years. She said the pandemic in general caused an increase in the number of lawsuits filed against the city, with the department’s tort division facing 28,000 pending cases, more than 2,000 over last year and 4,000 more than two years ago. Tort claims involve lawsuits against city agencies and employees for issues arising from their official duties.
“Pre-pandemic, we were able with the assistance of the City Council to add resources to the tort division, which enabled us to improve case outcomes through increasing early settlements, engaging in better case preparation, and enhancing our state court trial practice. We have experienced a total erosion of those resources these past two years and will need to focus existing resources on handling the increased caseload,” she said, noting that high personnel attrition in the department has increased caseloads across the board.
Payouts for settlements have also increased overall, which Hinds-Radix attributed to the court system returning to normal operations after the disruption of the pandemic. In fiscal year 2022, the city paid $794.7 million in settlements overall, compared to $576 million in fiscal year 2021, and $623 million in fiscal year 2020 (which began July 1, 2019, pre-pandemic).
Hinds-Radix also noted that settlements for wrongful convictions drove the numbers up. “Just a few of those large settlements cause the amount of judgment and claims to increase significantly,” she said.
Responding to a question from Council Member Sandra Ung, a Queens Democrat and chair of the governmental operation committee, Hinds-Radix also said the department takes steps to reduce the amount of settlements every year. “We look to settle cases early where we can. We also look to investigate as thoroughly as we can because by being prepared litigants, we are able to limit our liability,” she said.
But Council members specifically expressed concerns about the NYPD, which has in recent years been the biggest drivers of the total settlements paid out every year by the city. In most cases, the city settles without admitting any wrongdoing and officers escape severe discipline.
Council Member Lincoln Restler, a Brooklyn Democrat, pointed to a specific case to air his frustrations with the Law Department’s approach to alleged police misconduct.
He cited a ProPublica report from December about Karl Ashanti, a Law Department attorney who, while heading to work at his city office, was confronted and arrested by an NYPD officer on what turned out to be false charges of resisting arrest and allegedly shoving the officer. The department gave Ashanti the choice of resigning or being fired. Video evidence later showed that there was no shoving and, after most of the charges were dropped, Ashanti was found not guilty on one charge of harassment. He left the department, and sued the city and the officer.
That lawsuit is ongoing and Ashanti told ProPublica that the city is “fighting tooth and nail against me.” What makes the case particularly ironic is that Ashanti was part of the city’s Special Federal Litigation Division, defending the city in federal lawsuits over the exact type of NYPD abuse that he is alleging he suffered.
Restler echoed Ashanti’s words, taking issue with “the mentality of the Law Department to fight tooth and nail in defense of alleged police abuse and misconduct.”
“I found it really troubling,” he said, “and I'm concerned about the approach of the Law Department over many years.”
Hinds-Radix disagreed with the “characterization” of the ProPublica story. “The Law Department's role is to ensure that it protects the city…As attorneys, we have an ethical obligation as officers of the court to ensure that what we present to the court is not frivolous. And so to suggest that the Law Department just fights that as the article does, and does that without evaluating what is before us is something that I would have to disagree with vociferously,” she said.
The department evaluates each claim on a case by case basis, she insisted, and litigates when the result may be beneficial to the city. “In an overwhelming majority of the cases that we do, we realize that the defense of the police department is defensible and…since we have the obligation to defend those things, we do,” she added. “And the cases that need to be settled, we evaluate them and we settle them.”
“When there is police misconduct, there needs to be accountability,” Restler said, urging Hinds-Radix that, in such cases, “don't go to the mat defending it, but instead work to support and meet the needs of New Yorkers who have been victimized.”
“That is clearly our intent, Council member,” she responded. “To ensure that as we go to protect the city, that we do it in an ethical manner, and we will continue to do that.”
Council Member Gale Brewer, a Manhattan Democrat, raised similar concerns, questioning whether the department is taking a “no pay” effort – as Ashanti alleged in his case – against the type of civil rights claims involved in police misconduct cases. “I happen to be very supportive of the police department, but you have bad apples like you’ve got bad elected officials. And the question is not to have them cost the city of New York a fortune,” Brewer said.
“That has not been our approach, just a ‘no pay’ effort,” Hinds-Radix said. “Our attorneys are well aware of the fact that we expect them to go into court and act ethically…We have the city's interest to protect and we try to do that every day.”
At a separate budget hearing this week, an NYPD police official noted that settlement amounts have been dropping for years, which was true until they rose again in 2022. “I think it's important to note that cases are settled for a variety of reasons and they're not always indicative of wrongdoing, and that settlement amounts have been trending down for many years,” the official said, according to video of the exchange posted by Council Member Tiffany Cabán. The Council member and other progressives have stressed that for the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual NYPD settlements and overtime spending, the city could fund many of the social services that they argue would better create public safety than more aggressive policing.
“$121 million is nearly four times what the mayor is proposing we cut from libraries next year, for example, which the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens Library Systems say would severely impact their ability to provide critical services, resources and programs to patrons or to stay open for their regular hours,” Cabán said in response.
Criminal justice reform advocates have been broadly critical of the NYPD’s continued lack of accountability and that the NYPD commissioner continues to weaken disciplinary measures even as taxpayers are eventually on the hook for police abuse of power.
“Rampant NYPD misconduct continues to cost New Yorkers tens of millions of dollars each year, and Commissioner Keechant Sewell’s entrenched resistance to meaningful accountability means many of the officers involved in these lawsuits likely received a mere slap on the wrist, if any discipline at all,” said Maggie Hadley, a legal fellow with the Criminal Defense Practice’s Special Litigation Unit at The Legal Aid Society, in a statement when their analysis of settlements was released. “Officers who commit egregious or persistent acts of misconduct should not wear a badge or carry a gun, and the Department’s continued refusal to hold problematic officers accountable only perpetuates the culture of impunity that thrives at precincts throughout New York City.”
As Hadley indicated, Commissioner Sewell, like her predecessors, has consistently pushed back against outside oversight of police misconduct by the CCRB. The New York Post reported in December that Sewell intended to change the NYPD’s disciplinary matrix – which establishes standards for police disciplinary procedures – after she found that many disciplinary recommendations made by the CCRB and internal police judges were “manifestly unfair to the officers under review.”
The CCRB informed the City Council this month that Sewell went against its disciplinary recommendations in 425 cases, accounting for more than half of cases in which the oversight body recommended some form of discipline for police officers. In fact, she has punished officers at a far lower rate than the two commissioners before her.
Mayor Eric Adams has also failed to follow through on a campaign promise to publish a watch list of NYPD officers that the department is monitoring for violent behavior and other serious misconduct.
[Read: Nearly A Year In, No Sign of Adams' Promised NYPD Watchlist]
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette