Police Indemnification

Joanna C. Schwartz

This Article empirically examines an issue central to judicial and scholarly debate about civil rights damages actions: whether law enforcement officials are financially responsible for settlements and judgments in police misconduct cases. The Supreme Court has long assumed that law enforcement officers must personally satisfy settlements and judgments, and has limited individual and government liability in civil rights damages actions—through qualified immunity doctrine, municipal liability standards, and limitations on punitive damages—based in part on this assumption. Scholars disagree about the prevalence of indemnification: Some believe officers almost always satisfy settlements and judgments against them, and others contend indemnification is not a certainty. In this Article, I report the findings of a national study of police indemnification. Through public records requests, interviews, and other sources, I have collected information about indemnification practices in forty-four of the largest law enforcement agencies across the country, and in thirty-seven small and mid-sized agencies. My study reveals that police officers are virtually always indemnified: During the study period, governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers in my study never satisfied a punitive damages award entered against them and almost never contributed anything to settlements or judgments—even when indemnification was prohibited by law or policy, and even when officers were disciplined, terminated, or prosecuted for their conduct. After describing my findings, this Article considers the implications of widespread indemnification for qualified immunity, municipal liability, and punitive damages doctrines; civil rights litigation practice; and the deterrence and compensation goals of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

This article appears in the June 2014 Issue: Volume 89, Number 3