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$15 Million vs. $3 Million: Why Fatal Police Shooting Payouts Vary

The chances of you opening your morning paper or logging onto your favorite news website and seeing a headline involving a police officer fatally shooting a person are now more prevalent than ever.  There are usually reasons for the shooting offered: The officer was afraid for his life. The victim was reaching for his wristband or refused to show their hands or follow the officer’s instructions. A glint or glare looked like a gun and the officer reacted with deadly force. But when a Chicago police officer, Robert Rialmo killed Bettie R. Jones, age 55, there were no reasons to give. Officials actually acknowledged that Jones had not only been innocent but had died while trying to help the police.

Jones was not the only person who lost their lives that same blistering cold night in December 2015 to Rialmo. During the same incident, Rialmo also fatally shot Quintonio LeGreir, a 19-year-old college student.

A city review board found that Rialmo’s actions in both shootings were unjustified, but the City of Chicago could hardly have treated the two deaths more differently. Jones’ family stands to receive one of the largest settlements ever in a fatal police shooting – $16 million, pending City Council approval.  But LeGreir’s family did not receive a settlement –  in fact, the City of Chicago briefly tried to sue his estate before backing off. The family sued, and a jury awarded them $1 million, but the judge in case reversed the jury’s decision and awarded the family nothing.

Why? What was the difference? Lawyers who have represented families of shooting victims is that in Jones’ case the facts are unusually clear, while in LeGrier’s, they are more in line with typical police shootings: murky, complex and disputed.

In cases such as these much depends on the word of the officer, who is usually given the benefit of the doubt. Much depends on whether the officer is deemed to have been reasonably afraid, whether or not there was an actual threat.

According to the police, LeGrier had been charging at them with an aluminum baseball bat. His family says he may have been in the midst of a mental health crisis. Officers were responding to a 911 call from LeGrier’s father, was said he feared his son was going to harm him. Jones opened the door to direct the police officers to the LeGrier’s apartment upstairs. Account suggest that the police retreated, LeGrier came down the stairs, and he was near Jones’ apartment door when Rialmo began to fire.

In the LeGrier case, the city opted to take its chances at trial. Settlement offers, like the one in the Jones case, come when those chances are not good for a variety of reasons, including the culpability of the officer, the degree of sympathy for the victim, the amount of publicity surrounding the death and whether the episode was captured on video.  But there was another possible factor: the fact that the shooting took place in Chicago, said Robert Bennett, a civil rights lawyer who has represented the families in police shootings. in more conservative areas of the nation, where support for the police is typically robust, jury members can be loath to approve large government payouts to victims, Bennett said.

But in diverse, liberal Chicago, police-community tensions remain high after a series of questionable police shootings. And the jury awards in Chicago can be large – last year a man was awarded $44.7 million after his friend, a Chicago police officer, shot him in the head after drinking heavily. Below is a list of settlement amounts in other high-profile police shootings. In all cases, the person who died was black.

LaTanya Haggerty, Chicago, 1999

Settlement Amount: $18 Million

LaTanya Haggerty, a 26-year-old computer analyst, was a passenger in a car that fled from a police traffic stop and was chased for 31 blocks. Her family received what is believed to be the highest settlement in a fatal police shooting.

The officer that fired the fatal shot, Serena Daniels, said she mistook a cellphone Haggerty was holding for a gun. Daniels and two other officers involved were fired after officials said that they had ignored orders and fired without justification, but they were not prosecuted.

 

Sean Bell, New York, 2006

Settlement Amount: $3.25 Million

Sean Bell, 23, was fatally shot by the police on what would have been his wedding day. Five officers fired a total of 50 shots into the car that Bell was driving. The police said they believed, wrongly, that someone in the car had a gun because they had heard Bell’s acquaintances discussing a firearm while leaving his bachelor party, which took place at a club that was under investigation. The total settlement was $7.15 million; about $3.9 million went to two passengers who were wounded. Three of the officers were acquitted of manslaughter; the other two did not face criminal charges.

 

Walter L. Scott, North Carolina, South Carolina, 2015

Settlement Awarded $6.5 Million

Scott was stopped for a broken taillight and fled on foot, possibly because he feared arrest for failure to pay child support. A video appeared to show the officer, Michael T. Slager, shooting Scott in the back as he was running away. Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

 

Tamir Rice, Clevland, 2014

Settlement Awarded: $6 Million

Tamir Rice, 12, was carrying a replica handgun in a public park when an onlooker reported him to 911. Within two seconds of his arrival in a police cruiser, Officer Timothy Loehmann had shot the boy, later saying he feared for his life. The pellet gun was missing the orange safety tip that indicated it was a toy. The 911 caller had said the gun was “probably fake,” but that information was not relayed to the officers. A grand jury declined to indict Loehmann, who was later fired for lying on his police application.

 

Laquan McDonald, Chicago, 2014

Settlement Awarded: $5 Million

Laquan McDonald. 17, was killed by a Chicago police officer as he was walking away from officers. He was armed with a knife that he had refused to drop. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, shot McDonald16 times. Van Dyke is facing charges of murder and aggravated battery.

 

Philando Castile, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, 2016

Settlement Awarded: $3 Million

During a traffic stop for a broken taillight, Castle told the officer, Jeronimo Yanez of the St. Anthony Police Department, that he had a gun in the car (he was licensed to carry it). The officer told him not to reach for the weapon but then fired, later saying he thought Castile was disobeying his order. The aftermath of the shooting was streamed live on Facebook by a passenger, Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, whose daughter was in the backseat. Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter charges but left the police department.

 

Amadou Diallo, New York, 1999

Settlement Awarded $3 Million

Diallo, a 22-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was killed by four plainclothes officers who fired a total of 41 bullets, 19 of which struck Diallo. Officers said they believed Diallo had a gun. He was unarmed. The officers who were on patrol said Diallo fit the description of a serial rapist. They said they mistook a wallet Diallo was holding for a gun. The officers were tried for second-degree murder and acquitted.

 

Oscar Grant, Oakland, California, 2009

Settlement Awarded: $2.8 Million

Officers of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department were responding to reports of a fight when they ordered Grant, 22, to lie down on a subway platform. It is not clear whether he was involved in the fight. Though he complied with the order, one of the officers, Johannes Mehserle, shot Grant  – who was unarmed – in the back. The officer said he thought Grant was reaching for a gun. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in jail. The shooting was the basis for a film “Fruitvale Station.”

 

Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri, 2014

Settlement Awarded: $1.5 million

Brown, 18, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a police officer who confronted him for walking in the street. The officer said Brown attacked him. The authorities found Brown’s DNA inside the driver’s door of the police vehicle, and on Wilson’s clothes and weapon. The shooting sparked protests across the country and unrest in Ferguson, but several investigations ended with no charges filed against Wilson, who resigned.

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