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Denver police brutality: City legal payouts pale compared to New York's $500 million problem

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Allegations of Denver police brutality, from Michael DeHerrera's beating in LoDo to Alex Landau getting pummeled after allegedly making an illegal left turn, continue to make headlines. But how bad is Denver's police misconduct problem? Here's one point of comparison: While Denver has spent more than $10 million settling police and sheriff claims since 2002, the New York Times estimates that New York has spent a whopping $500 million on settlements and lawsuits involving the NYPD. And that's just in the last five years.

Of course, New York has many more cops than Denver, with about 34,500 officers compared to our city's 1,400 (apparently, NYC has one of the highest cop per capita of anywhere). Still, even adjusting for size, over the last five years, New York's lawsuit-per-cop ratio is still about four times that of Denver's. So at least we have that to be thankful for.

Despite the differences in lawsuit numbers, the advice the New York Times offers to deal with New York's costly cop problem could be relevant for Denver, too. For one thing, the Gray Lady suggests that the city and police department actively track and analyze all lawsuits brought against officers, something some police departments across the country have began doing. That way, problem officers could be highlighted and new strategies and processes could be implemented to hopefully cut down sky-high legal costs.

Denver already follows most police-misconduct cases that evolve into lawsuits. As described in the recent feature on Independent Monitor Richard Rosenthal, Denver has one of the most thorough and transparent police-oversight systems anywhere in the country. Still, better tabs could be kept on the lawsuits. It wasn't until after the DeHerrera scandal broke last summer that the Denver City Council requested that the City Attorney's Office provide it with data for city settlements related to the police and sheriff departments, and even those numbers did not include all minor claims brought against officers, as a recent informal audit compiled by the ACLU demonstrated.

Another Times suggestion that might have an even bigger impact on the number of police lawsuits: Make the police department itself pay all the legal bills. At a time when everybody is feeling the financial pinch, hitting the cops in the wallet might be an effective tactic.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Denver police brutality scandal: A multimedia timeline."

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