Since 2012, Nashville has spent $547,000 dollars dealing with alleged police misconduct, records show. That includes judgments and settlements. But the District Attorney’s recent take on the fatal shooting of Jocques Clemmons by Metro officer Joshua Lippert could open the department to more lawsuits.
Half-a-million dollars is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of government work, especially when you compare it to similar-sized cities. But if the numbers tell us anything, it’s that these claims can be difficult to prove and the compensation is minimal.
The main reason is a 35-year-old ordinance that caps the payout for such cases at $50,000.
Tricia Herzfeld, a civil rights attorney with the Nashville-based firm Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, has successfully brought cases against the police. She says the $50,000 limit makes it less likely that cases alleging police misconduct will be litigated.
“That is a really difficult number to get an individual who has been wronged, or to get an attorney to put forth their time and their life to go after $50,000,” Herzfeld says.
Adjusted for inflation it’s worth less than half of what it was in 1982 when the cap was written into law. ($130,000 to be precise.)
Herzfeld says mounting a case for alleged misconduct isn’t easy. It often requires suing the officer directly. That would be for things like excessive force, false arrest or racial profiling. And if a client wants more than the $50,000 Metro is willing to pay, they have go after the officer’s personal assets. Another option is to sue the department, which has the potential for a more compensation. But that, Herzfeld says, requires a much higher burden of proof.
“They really have created somewhat of a labyrinth which is certainly discouraging for people suing the police department,” she says of Metro’s policy.
For example, suing the police department requires showing a pattern or practice of bad behavior or training, which is hard. But that’s what D.A. Glenn Funk opened the door to when he noted an appearance of bias in the investigation of the fatal shooting by a metro officer. In the case of Clemmons, he cited the repeated use of the term “victim” for the officer who fired his weapon. Experts say that the mere suggestion of bias could be used against police in future cases.