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When cities settle cases of inappropriate or illegal force by police officers, they pay, and they pay a lot. Chicago alone has paid out more than a half billion dollars since 2004, but police reformers say all those payouts haven't had much of an effect on policing practices. NPR's Martin Kaste reports that one group in Minneapolis says it is time to rethink who pays.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Michelle Gross is a dedicated police reform activist - a gadfly if you ask the cops in Minneapolis. But over the years, she's become frustrated with the more familiar prescriptions for change.
MICHELLE GROSS: Things like Tasers and body cameras and every other thing that people think is going to be the solution isn't the solution. It always turns out to be a very hollow solution.
KASTE: She says in practice, these fixes haven't done enough to make sure that individual officers are held accountable for their actions, so she and a group called the Committee for Professional Policing are now pushing a completely different idea.
GROSS: We are working to get a measure on the ballot that would require police officers to carry professional liability insurance.
KASTE: Liability insurance, like a doctor's malpractice policy. Some police already buy policies voluntarily, but this would require it. Dave Bicking is another member of the group, and he says the beauty of this scheme is that an officer with a pattern of misconduct would see his premiums go up. And the worse the cop, the more expensive things would get.
DAVE BICKING: We have one officer who's had five significant settlements against him just in a year and a half. Now, someone like that could never, ever buy insurance. They'd have to charge them $60,000, $70,000 a year. That officer would be gone.
KASTE: The plan has a simple appeal, but police call it simplistic. They say it glosses over the gritty reality of what it takes to be a good cop.
BOB KROLL: I always equate police work to, like, basketball. If you're not getting any fouls, you're not playing hard enough.
KASTE: Bob Kroll is the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. He says if cops have to start worrying about their insurance rates, they're liable to become overly cautious.
KROLL: Anybody can get in a squad car and drive around and put the blinders on and not investigate suspicious circumstances, not engage, not question suspicious behavior. If you don't do that proactive police work, your likelihood of getting sued is a lot less.
KASTE: Even some reformers see a problem there. Michael Quinn is a retired Minneapolis police sergeant who wrote a book about misconduct and now teaches police ethics. He's not sure insurance companies should be the ones evaluating a police officer's performance.
MICHAEL QUINN: I'd have to see what it is they're going to use to determine what's going to increase their premium, what's going to single them out from everybody else. They don't trust the system to do that right.
KASTE: But that doesn't mean he thinks the current system is working that well. Quinn says the beneficial feedback that's supposed to happen after a lawsuit when an officer is disciplined or gets a lecture - that just isn't happening enough.
QUINN: I think the poor management and a lack of supervision is what's leading to this stuff. These cops aren't being held accountable. The supervisors aren't holding them accountable, and so we're going to continue to have this money being paid out.
KASTE: And that's why John Rappaport is glad to see this proposal in Minneapolis. He teaches at the University of Chicago Law School where he's been studying how cities handle claims against police. He's not convinced this insurance scheme would work as advertised, but he says at least someone is willing to propose something new.
JOHN RAPPAPORT: I love it because people are starting to think creatively, and I think we need that. I mean, we're very much stuck in a rut with American policing, and this moment is really causing people to be interested in shaking things up.
KASTE: The activists have until July 5 to finish getting voter signatures. They're already pretty close to the number they need. And then it's up to the Minneapolis City Council to decide whether the proposal is legal and whether it should go on the ballot this fall. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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