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Millions in lawsuit settlements are another hidden cost of police misconduct, legal experts say

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(NEW YORK) — False arrests, civil rights violations and excessive force are just a handful of claims made against police departments across the country by the thousands every year.

Amid massive protests over the last few weeks on the heels of the death of George Floyd while in police custody, demonstrators and law enforcement officials have clashed.

As a result, some officers in cities from Atlanta to Philadelphia to Buffalo have been disciplined for alleged misconduct against protesters and opened the door to the possibility of countless civil lawsuits, legal experts told ABC News.

While data shows that claims against police are down in cities with the largest police forces in the country, they still cost taxpayers over $300 million in fiscal year 2019. Advocates say that tax money could be better spent.

“The taxpayers are going to bear the brunt for the cost of police brutality,” Sanford Rubenstein, a New York City-based civil attorney whose firm has represented families and victims of police brutality for over 35 years and collected millions of dollars in settlements.

The New York Police Department is the largest police force in the country with over 36,000 members servicing a city of 8.3 million people.

During fiscal year 2019, the city paid out $175.9 million in civil judgments and claims for police-related lawsuits — not including settlements made with the city’s comptroller’s office, said Nick Paolucci, a spokesman with the city’s Law Department — the agency that defends the city and its employees in lawsuits.

In 2019, the city’s comptroller’s office dished out almost $4 million in settlements to almost 200 pre-litigation civil rights and police action claims that included excessive force, according to data obtained by ABC News for settlements between 2014 and 2019.

“In New York City at least, it’s not like the police’s budget. Budgets for settlements from lawsuits … comes from the city, and that’s taxpayer money,” said Jennvine Wong, staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, Special Litigation Unit.

Employees of government agencies like the NYPD have immunity from contributing to a settlement or judgment if named in a lawsuit where an accusation of misconduct is made while the employee is on the job.

For notice of claims and lawsuits filed against New York City, the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget allocates funds every fiscal year — $733 million in 2020 and $697 million in 2019 — for payouts. In instances where a government employee is ordered to contribute to a payout, the amount is very small, legal experts said.

For fiscal year 2021, 6 cents of every dollar will go to miscellaneous spending including “labor reserve, general reserve, judgments and claims, MTA subsidies and other contractual services,” according to the city’s executive budget from the OMB.

“That’s a lot of money that we are paying out for the misconduct of many cops that are still allowed — many, not all — to stay on the force or probably are not even disciplined,” said Wong.

Wong said that as conversations of defunding the police continue, there should be consideration for allocating the funds to public health crises like “gun violence, poverty, drug addiction and in treating those in a more efficient manner.” Funds would then go to attacking community problems at the root cause and could result in “a less of a need for policing to begin with,” she said.

In a letter sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio on June 4, Comptroller Scott Stringer urged cutting $1.1 billion from the NYPD’s budget over the next four years and to reinvest into the community as a result of $1.3 billion spent since 2014 as the consequences of alleged police misconduct.

“Acting aggressively to identify and hold officers accountable for police misconduct will not only save dollars in future lawsuits, it will spare many New Yorkers the needless pain and suffering stemming from the unnecessary use of force or other violations of civil rights,” according to the letter.

Hazel Crampton-Hays, the press secretary for Stringer, said in a statement to ABC News that she agrees that “New York City must invest more in underserved communities most impacted by violence and structural racism.”

For several years, advocates and lawmakers have made efforts to change legislation that protected government officials like police officers from discipline.

New York state lawmakers were successful on June 9 in repealing Section 50-A that prevented the release of a police officer’s personnel records. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation on Friday.

The following day, attorney Ben Crump spoke before the House Judiciary Committee about the effects of the “qualified immunity,” which prevents filing a lawsuit against police officers as an individual, unless they were found to have violated a federal law. The Supreme Court is expected to decide if it will review qualified immunity laws.

“Immunity breeds impunity for these police,” said Crump, who represents several families of black people who died in encounters with the police, including Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police during a “no-knock” warrant raid. “If they have this qualified immunity, we see no accountability.”

Notice of claims filed against the NYPD that settled with the city’s comptroller’s office during fiscal year 2019 cost taxpayers $220.1 million, compared to $237.4 million in the previous year and a 35% decrease from the $338.2 million paid out in 2017, according to the comptroller’s annual report released on Friday. Of those 5,848 claims filed, 61% were for accusations of “police action” such as false arrest or imprisonment, excessive force or assault, or failure to provide police protection.

However, Rubenstein believes that “given the recent epidemic of police brutality during the pandemic, settlements from expected lawsuits will be a rather large expense.”

Here is a look at claims in other cities with the largest police forces in the country:

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, with a population of over 4 million, had an increase of lawsuits filed against law enforcement over the last three fiscal years, according to the city’s chief executive risk management’s annual report published in January.

Of the 606 claims filed during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, 539 were against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office — the authoritative arm of several law enforcement agencies including the Los Angeles Police Department. Two-hundred and forty one lawsuits were dismissed without any payments, according to the county’s County Counsel Annual Litigation Cost Report.

The county budgeted $148.5 million where $91.5 million was paid to satisfy 16 judgments, including $16.3 million paid for nine lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department and 240 settlements, according to the annual litigation cost report. “This marks a 24% increase over the $73.7 million the county expended on judgments and settlements” from the previous fiscal year, the report read.

Of the settlements from the 2018-2019 fiscal year, there were nine made against the Sheriff’s Department and another form of law enforcement that accounted for 56% of the $60.4 million in expenses — a 1% decrease from the previous fiscal year. The county spent $81,485,430 in litigation expense for the Sheriff’s Department, according to the annual litigation cost report.

The city has budgeted $19.4 million for “judgments and damages/insurance” for at least the last three fiscal years, according to the county’s final budget.

Law enforcement liabilities made up 43.1% of lawsuits filed against the city during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to the risk management’s annual report. Compared to the 6.5% of law enforcement liability claims from the 2017-2018 fiscal year where $40.6 million was paid by cost taxpayers.

The LAPD has approximately 9,000 sworn officers and 3,000 civilian employees, according to the agency’s most recent COMPSTAT report. In 2016, when the agency had a reported 11,954 officers, according to the FBI’s full-time law enforcement employees database, the amount of law enforcement liability claims were at 491 during that fiscal year.

The city increased the amount of “corporate fund” resources — operations and services such as public safety which includes the police department — available to pay for routine settlements and judgments costs.

“Revenue within the corporate fund is derived from local taxes, intergovernmental taxes, non-tax revenue, proceeds and transfers and prior year available resources,” according to the city of Chicago’s 2018 Annual Financial Analysis.

The city has a population of over 2.7 million with a total of 13,135 law enforcement officers that include 11,954 police and 1,181 civilian members, according to the FBI’s 2016 full-time law enforcement employees database.

Expenditures of the corporate funds had an estimated $99.8 million figure to go towards claims, refunds, judgments and legal fees by the end of 2018, the document read. The city’s financial analysis projected spending $45 million in 2019 on those same expenses.

In 2018, more than $85 million of taxpayer funds were used to settle police misconduct lawsuits — the highest amount since 2011 — and an additional $28 million to outside lawyers to defend these cases, according to data analyzed by the Chicago Reporter. For the prior year, over $32 million were paid to settle police-related lawsuits and $23 million in lawyer fees.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Florida sees 2 consecutive days of 2,000-plus new COVID-19 cases as more beaches reopen

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(MIAMI) — Florida reported record levels of new COVID-19 cases this weekend as more beaches reopened in the Sunshine State.

On Sunday, the Florida Department of Health reported its second consecutive day of more than 2,000 new daily cases, with 2,016. On Saturday, it reported a daily record of 2,581.

The records come as the state continued its phased reopening during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the state is now in Phase 2 of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reopening plan, which allowed bars, movie theaters and tattoo parlors to reopen on June 5 with restrictions.

Counties have been reopening beaches since mid-April, with high-profile South Florida sands closed by state order slower to reopen. On Wednesday, beaches in Miami-Dade County were allowed to reopen after closing in mid-March.

Health protocols include groups no larger than 10, facial coverings ready to use at all times and no group activities, like volleyball or frisbee. Ambassadors are stationed at county beaches to remind visitors of the rules, according to Miami ABC affiliate WPLG-TV. Beachgoers who violate the rules can be required to leave, the county said.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who notably has personally recovered from COVID-19, told Good Morning America he was concerned about the recent numbers.

“We continue to see data that’s indicating that cases are going up,” he said on Saturday. “That still doesn’t incorporate Memorial Day weekend, and that still doesn’t incorporate the protests, which we know have congregated thousands of people in our city, many of which are not wearing masks.”

Suarez said he wouldn’t discount pausing the city’s reopening based on the data.

“We have been data-driven from the first day, and we’re going to continue to be data-driven,” he said. “The data is concerning. And we may have to make some decisions after this weekend as the data comes in.”

DeSantis told WPLG-TV on Friday that he attributed the state’s rise in cases to an outbreak among farmworkers in north central Florida.

In August, the state plans to host the Republican National Convention. The GOP gathering was moved to Jacksonville after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper could not guarantee coronavirus restrictions would be lifted in time for a full-scale convention in Charlotte.

As of Sunday, the Florida health department has reported 75,568 cases of COVID-19 and 2,931 deaths.

On Thursday, a former Florida Department of Health data scientist launched a rival COVID-19 dashboard, which shows a higher number of total cases and deaths in the state and breaks reopening criteria down by county. Creator Rebekah Jones told the Washington Post she wanted to “build an application that delivered data and helped people get tested and helped them get resources that they need from their community.”

ABC News’ Scott Withers contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

The quiet army supporting Black Lives Matter protests

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iStock/Kameleon007By: MARIYA MOSELEY, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — As mass protests continue across the United States nearly three weeks after George Floyd’s death, a quiet army of supporters has been mobilizing to help aid demonstrators marching in the streets.

Whether it’s feeding, housing or driving protesters home, some say they’re using whatever resources they have to help move the needle forward and support the Black Lives Matter movement.

For Rahul Dubey of Washington, D.C., that meant sheltering over 70 fleeing protesters in his home on June 1.

Dubey offered his home as a safe haven after he said he witnessed a large group of protesters being pepper sprayed and beaten to the ground by police officers. He said he was also hit with pepper spray.

Dubey said that’s when he started yelling, “Get inside, get in the house,” before protesters, many of whom were complete strangers before that night, started piling up and aiding each other and checking in with family and friends to tell them they were safe, he added.

The 44-year-old Indian American admits that that night was the catalyst for igniting his passion for the movement and showing his support as an ally in whatever way possible.

“It took for that to happen for me to get fired up,” Dubey told ABC News.

The healthcare innovator and son of immigrants who has lived in the nation’s capital for nearly two decades, believes that the night proved the power of working together.

“There was an eight-and-a-half-hour period . . . where I saw humanity at its finest that I’ve never seen in my entire life,” Dubey said.

Since then, not only has he received dozens of flowers and handwritten thank-you notes, he said, from around the world, but he said he has also remained in touch with many of the activists.

“Everyone did a little part of opening the door . . . bringing us milk and snacks … What’s your moment of opening the door going forward?” Dubey said.

For Lizzy Ashleigh, playing her part in the Black Lives Matter movement means driving around protesters and ensuring that they get home safely. Ashleigh, a ride-share driver in New York City, said that she’s committed to playing her part, whether that means calling to pinpoint protestors’ exact location or just offering a listening ear for riders to share their stories.

Ashleigh, a Brooklyn native and music artist, said that prior to the pandemic, she was planning to perform across several cities before she took up driving full time to help pay her bills. She said that while she’s come across people from all walks of life while on the job, including racists who have openly expressed their views inside her car, she is determined to keep going.

“The movement in general is needed to awaken so many minds to the systemic racism that’s been happening for years,” Ashleigh said.

Ashleigh said that one of her riders’ stories that really touched her was a 16-year-old girl she drove home, who claimed she was violently tossed and handcuffed to the ground by police during a protest in the tri-state area.

“She had so many questions … She was still hurt, but I think I made her feel better,” Ashleigh said.

Another wave of support for protesters has included several organizations opening their lobbies for restroom breaks, phone charging and cooling stations.

From New York City’s Signature Theatre to the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., dozens of theaters across the country have opened their doors as part of the #OpenYourLobby campaign on social media. For some businesses, that meant intentionally reopening after being closing for months amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Stop by the Calderwood Pavilion now until 6 p.m. if you need a snack, drink, the restroom, or just wanna see a friendly face. #OpenYourLobby #BlackLivesMatter #Boston,” the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston wrote on Twitter.

For Aaron Sternberg, his support of the movement includes organizing with “Feed The Streets LA,” a group that started over five years ago to offer food and hygiene products for the homeless.

The group is aiding Black Lives Matter protesters across Los Angeles by offering demonstrators water or those who are injured assistance from volunteers with a medical background. Additionally, they have been helping the community rebuild after some businesses were destroyed.

“We saw this need for protesters, so we came together and started fundraising and thought about the ways we could support the people who are out in the streets,” Sternberg told ABC News.

Sternberg, a Los Angeles native who’s been working alongside the team for two years, said that he’s using this opportunity as a chance to “support and learn as much as I can as a white person.”

“I grew up in the valley, I was very privileged … I just know that it’s now my time to talk and be there to support. I think that this movement is rolling through our nation and helping wake a lot of people up,” Sternberg said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Woman escapes after man uses Tinder to lure her into being kidnapped, sexually assaulted

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iStock/WachiwitBy: JON HAWORTH, ABC News

(LOS ANGELES) — A man has been arrested after using Tinder to entice a woman into meeting up with him and allegedly attempting to kidnap and rape her before she was able to break free in the middle of the assault.

The incident occurred when patrol deputies responded to a home in Fresno, California, on early Saturday morning to reports of a kidnapping and attempted rape that had been called in.

The suspect, 30-year-old Fabian Ornelas of Fresno, California, had allegedly used the social media dating app Tinder and created a profile under the name “Dominick” to entice a woman into meeting up with him earlier in the evening.

“After making a match with the woman online, Fabian arranged to meet with her in person,” the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement released on social media. “After spending some time together, the victim attempted to leave, but Fabian forced himself on her and attempted to rape her. The woman was able to break free during the middle of the assault and fled the area. She then called the Sheriff’s Office to make a report.”

Detectives subsequently served a search warrant at Orenlas’ home and discovered leads that the suspect may have committed similar crimes previously. Authorities are now asking those who may have felt they were a potential victim of Ornelas to contact them regarding this case.

Ornelas was booked into the Fresno County Jail on the charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment, attempted rape, probation violation and other charges relating to sexual assault. His total bail has been set at $243,500.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Investigations into alleged officer misconduct not enough for man permanently injured during curfew

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iStock/peterspiroBy: ELLA TORRES, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Police departments across the country have come under fire for their handling of what were largely peaceful protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which were, in part, against police brutality. In some cases, officials are now investigating alleged officer misconduct.

Yet for one man who says he was permanently blinded in his left eye after rubber bullets were allegedly shot at him, the internal investigations are not enough.

“They’re treating us like we’re attacking the country, when they’re really attacking us as citizens,” Jax Feldmann, a 21-year-old Denver resident, told ABC News.

Feldmann said he was leaving his friends’ house on May 30 and was walking to his car at around 9:30 p.m. before he was allegedly shot. Earlier that day, the city had seen protests in the wake of Floyd’s death. But by the time Feldmann had stepped out, he said the crowds had mostly dispersed. A curfew was in effect at 8 p.m. that evening.

He walked what he said was about 30 or 40 feet before seeing “a truck full of cops” drive around the corner.

Feldmann said he did not see anyone peacefully protesting, let alone being violent. But when he arrived at the corner of Grant Street and Colfax Avenue, he was, as he describes, suddenly shot in the eye.

“I can’t really work my head around the fact that I wasn’t even protesting, and I still got shot in the eye and now I’m blind,” he said. “I don’t have any explanation as to why they did that and they haven’t come forward with an explanation.”

Feldmann said that he learned on Thursday that in about a year or two, he will completely lose his eye and will need a prosthetic. The doctors gave him the choice to have more surgeries, but said at some point down the road, the outcome of losing his eye was inevitable, according to Feldmann.

Beyond the investigation, he wants to see actual change.

“This shouldn’t happen to anyone whether you’re a citizen or an actual criminal and something needs to be done about that … I think we need to ban these non-lethal projectiles,” he said.

A spokesperson for Denver police told ABC News there is “an open investigation into that incident at this time.”

“As with all internal affairs investigations, they are overseen by the office of the independent monitor,” the spokesperson said. When asked by ABC News if any officers had been placed on administrative leave or reassigned to non-field duties, the spokesperson did not respond to ABC News.

Protests in Denver were largely peaceful and continued steadily since Floyd’s death on May 25, but in some instances police used pepper spray and projectiles on them.

A federal judge ruled on June 5 that the Denver Police Department must scale back its use of chemicals and projectiles in protests. Judge R. Brooke Jackson of U.S. District Court, District of Colorado, said some actions of “what I hope and believe to be a minority of the police officers in Denver and the nation during recent days (and before) not only vis-a-vis persons of color but against peaceful protesters of all backgrounds have been disgusting.”

Denver police said it would comply with the order.

Rubber bullets, referred to as kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs), are made from a variety of materials including rubber, polyvinyl chloride, plastic or a composite including metal. A combination of these materials into one bullet, propelled at a fast velocity and in close proximity, can cause terminal injuries or serious long-term damage, according to experts.

Feldmann’s case is not the only instance being investigated.

In New York, the Attorney General Letitia James is investigating the interactions between the NYPD and protesters. Los Angeles police have launched more than 50 investigations into officer misconduct.

Feldmann’s mother, Tammy, is wondering why there is only an internal investigation and not criminal charges.

“It is very frustrating because if I would have done this to somebody, where would I be right now? I’d be in jail. I’d have charges pressed against me,” she said.

Tammy Feldmann said she wants someone to be held accountable and wants an answer as to why police were using rubber bullets in the first place.

She described the damage to her son’s eye.

“There’s three layers to your eye. You have the sclera, you have the choroid and you have the retina. There was so much damage from the bullet that it shredded all three layers so they’re no longer connected and they can’t fix it,” his mother said.

“So when Jax was given the option of a surgery, what the surgery was to remove all the blood that was in the back and front of his eye. The pain could be very intense to do that. Or we could do the other option, which is to let the blood just dissipate on its own because he’s not gonna have sight,” she continued.

Tammy Feldmann called her son’s decision to do the latter “heart-wrenching.”

Birk Baumgartner, an attorney representing Feldmann, said they are taking steps to file a lawsuit against the City of Denver.

“This is not some garden variety of officer misconduct. This is a criminal assault causing serious bodily injury,” Baumgartner said. “There is no doubt this is a criminal act and an intentional act, and the city is not investigating as such. That shows what their real intentions are towards Jax.”

A Sacramento woman said she’ll likely be blind in one eye after the police shot her with a rubber bullet, according to ABC Sacramento affiliate KXTV. A freelance photographer said she likely won’t regain vision in her left eye after being shot with what she believes was a rubber bullet, according to the New York Times. A woman who attended a protest in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told ABC News bones in her face were fractured.

Dr. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician, medical expert at Physicians for Human Rights, and Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, said that police are not required to report their use of these weapons.

Haar also said their irregular shape creates unpredictable trajectories and makes it so there’s “really no way to use them safely in the crowd control setting to disperse the crowd or target a single violent individual within a crowd.”

“Ultimately, what the narrative should be, is that these are weapons and should be considered dangerous,” Haar added.

ABC News’ Dr. Ayodola Adigun and Eden David contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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