The Problem With “Make The Cop Pay” Solution

Hartford has had a long history of being a pretty nasty city when it comes to cops beating on people. Whether that makes it worse, or different, than a lot of other places can be debated, but what matters is that it’s less than user-friendly for many. Bloomfield High School football coach Tylon Outlaw felt something, but it was not the love.

The coach had gone to a Hartford restaurant to meet with friends regarding a proposed business venture. Upon leaving, he spoke with several other friends he recognized in a taxi cab.

An undercover Hartford detective driving an unmarked car yelled at the coach, “Hey motherfucker.”

Perceiving this to be an informal urban pleasantry, he responded in kind.

That was in 2004, when he was a college football player and “urban pleasantries” were more freely exchanged. It turned out to be less pleasant than expected.

The plain clothes detective, Troy Gordon, did not identify himself as a police officer. He did, however, park and ultimately charge at the coach, kicking him in the stomach. As the coach was able to block a second kick with his hands, he was struck in the head from behind with a police baton by another officer.

He fell to the ground, yelling for help. On his back he curled into a fetal position as he was repeatedly struck in the head, arms and legs with a baton and kicked in the back and stomach. As he tried to cover his face, officer Michael Allen hit him in the right knee with the baton, breaking his kneecap.

A basic beatdown, though a broken kneecap is the sort of injury that lasts a lifetime and ends a football career. After some additional Hartford unpleasantness, and the obligatory arrest for being beaten by mistake after it was realized he wasn’t whoever they thought he was when first greeted, came the civil action for the violation of his civil rights and compensatory damages.

Outlaw received a jury verdict of $454,197. The adequacy of the verdict for a life of pain, surgeries, and a life dictated not by his choice and effort, but by what was left after the cops were done wailing on him, seems dubious, but that was the least of the problems. Hartford decided it wasn’t going to pay.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William Garfinkel wrote the following opinion in a Nov. 13, 2017 ruling in a related case in which the city stiffed both the brutality victims and the cops. Garfinkel’s entire opinion should be circulated widely.*

The City’s position, in addition to being unsupported by precedent, is bewildering. How can Hartford maintain a qualified police force when it is willing to expose its officers to personal liability for compensatory damages for civil rights judgments? What capable officer, in his or her right mind, would want to work for such a city? And what message does this send to the community, the residents of Hartford, when their governing officials promote a position that, in all likelihood, will leave them without full compensation for injuries in the event that they are the victims of a civil rights violation?

One of the many dirty little secrets of the law is that winning a verdict and getting the verdict paid are very different matters. If the city wanted to indemnify its cop, then it would elect to pay the verdict. And if not, the onus shifted back to the victim of police brutality to collect the money.

Often, the argument is that the solution to police violence is to make the cop personally liable for his conduct, shift the incentive system from the municipality, or more accurately its taxpayers, to the bad dude who did the dirty. Make him suffer.

The problem is that the cop may be judgment proof. If the cop has no wealth or assets, there is no fund from which to collect a judgment. You can’t get blood from a rock. For Outlaw, this means that he’s got himself a sizable judgment, but it’s nothing but a piece of paper unless he can collect on it. And that piece of paper doesn’t pay the bills.

The coach still has a lien on his house for hospital bills cited in his federal jury award, which was affirmed in March of this year by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Not only that, the city has filed an action to bill him about $10,000 for court costs.

What basis exists for the city to sue for court costs is unclear. Why Hartford has chosen not to indemnify the judgment is similarly unclear. If there is an actual reason behind this, it’s never quite said, leaving a huge gape in the narrative that isn’t filled by the tangential swipes at Hartford and cops.

But what matters is that Hartford won’t pay the judgment, even if there is absolutely no explanation why.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, briefed on the various judicial admonitions against the city and the ongoing indemnification brouhaha in the Outlaw civil rights award, offered the following statement late Tuesday: “Our police officers do extraordinarily important work, often in extraordinarily difficult and dangerous situations, and they deserve to know that our city stands behind them. In cases of alleged police misconduct, we defend our officers vigorously, pay for the officers’ legal defense, and if there’s a judgment against an officer, our policy is to indemnify the officer against any judgment in all but the most egregious circumstances. We have an obligation to review each case individually, and we have to consider whether it would be appropriate for taxpayers to bear the cost in a situation that truly involved egregious, willful, and wanton misconduct. As there are still post-trial motions pending in the Outlaw case, I can’t comment on that case specifically.”

If you’re the cop in Hartford, this is their way of telling you that if you get nailed for your beatdown, you’re on your own. The irony in this platitudinous rationalization is that the city says it will indemnify for all “but the most egregious circumstances,” which is sufficiently vague and meaningless as to provide no clue what they mean. But if it’s the “most egregious circumstances,” then the victim of a Hartford cop’s beating has suffered those circumstances. And he’s the guy who has nowhere to turn to have his judgment paid.

“Most cities want to encourage out-of-town people to patronize local business,” said one of the coach’s lawyers, Raymond Rigat. “Here, the message seems to be: ‘Welcome to Hartford, catch an old fashioned police beat-down, go to the hospital — it’s your problem not ours.’ This is another reason it is so puzzling to me why Hartford refuses to make this right.”

Make the cop pay sounds like a great shift in the incentive system to induce police to consider the ruinous life consequences for their misconduct, and no doubt the cop involves regrets, for his own sake, the violence used on Coach Tylon Outlaw. But for Outlaw, he just wants his judgment paid, and now he has to fight Hartford for it.

*Curiously, the opinion that “should be widely circulated” isn’t linked in the article.

42 comments on “The Problem With “Make The Cop Pay” Solution

  1. F. Lee Billy

    This is a perfect example of why I have repeatedly referred to CONnecticut as a Bermuda Triangle of the Legal Mind. On this very blawgsite for years.

    P.S., CT is my home state. I did seek political asylum in a neighboring jurisdiction. Not New York! I did file a civil rights complaint against City and State in Hartford District Court, which wound up at Folly Sq. NY. And finally docketed with SCOTUS. Did this all by meself, without the help of any lawyer or any do-gooder nonprofit. (ACLU anybody?)

    Needless to say: Lost at every step of the way. Howver, derived great pleasure in torturing those baaadtard officials in the UnCostituition state of Ct. A right without a remedy is not right. It’s wrong!
    Thanx for this posting.

      1. F. Lee Billy

        Oh dear!?! I’ve crossed the Line again. Breathlessly waiting in Boston for RGK’s take on this serious legal conundrum.

    1. SHG Post author

      Thanks. My point was less about finding the unlinked opinion than, if the writer wants us to see it, he ought to do the heavy lifting himself rather than leave it some generous person like you to do it for him.

      1. Jake

        Which are?

        And before you clown me, I want you to know I know police officer liability insurance exists.

        1. SHG Post author

          1. Keep reading before you bother me with insipid questions, bearing in mind that because you lack knowledge doesn’t mean knowledge doesn’t exist.

          2. It does exist. So too did the Yugo.

          1. Jake

            You’re conflating knowledge and your opinion and you’ve failed to show any evidence why disintermediating risk will not change officer behavior here or anywhere else in these comments. We both know the current system isn’t working. Forcing individual officers to pay the premiums on individual liability is the kind of solution you should love: Free-market. Bash too many heads? You can’t afford insurance. In any town. Bad cop, no donut.

  2. kemn

    Am I too cynical for thinking that at least he’s still alive, and the cops didn’t shoot him repeatedly for hurting their feelz?

    And I do agree that the city suing for court costs is definitely insult to literal injury.

    Also, I don’t see anything here, did the cops get fired or a promotion out of this incident?

    1. F. Lee Billy

      Or something in between? What is your best guess there? PBA was invented for precisely these situations. My guess is neither. Hopefully, the officer tosses and turns at nite, while restraining himself with the wifey, the kiddies and the doggies.

      Studies show police officers frequently have substance abuse problems AND a high rate of suicide. It’s a nasty job, but somebody has to do it. And then there are the lawyers, another breed of cat.

    2. SHG Post author

      Much of the time, we reserve our outrage (and notice) for the most outrageous violence. That he wasn’t killed is fortunate, but how screwed up is this scenario when the reaction is, “well, at least they didn’t kill him”?

      As for the other questions, it would have been nice if the article focused more on the core story, and gave us all the relevant information, rather than the many tangents that were intended to stoke outrage but added little to our understanding of what happened in this matter.

  3. Pete Veloski

    What about the “make the cop carry professional liability insurance solution.” Seems like that would accomplish the goals of giving victims a source of recovery, limiting the local government’s liability, and making bad cops shoulder the burden of their behavior and ultimately pushing out of the profession when their rates go through the roof.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s an obvious alternative, but it too has its substantial issues. Fail to pay and it lapses. Give untimely notice and they disclaim. Even more significantly, it will just end up another union negotiating issue, with the municipality to pay the premium (whether directly or indirectly). And then there’s the intentional crime problem, which many policies don’t cover as against public policy. So it is an alternative, but it trades one set of problems for another.

      1. Guitardave

        I’m probably putting my head on the chopping block here, as I am obviously not “legally woke”…but what if the insurance is set up so your not allowed to be an active officer without it. ( like having to turn in your registration plate when your car ins. is canceled) Yes , i know the unions would kill it, but it might possibly also solve the problem of rouge cops moving to another county/state and starting their psycho shit all over again. No matter who pays the premium, if the ins. co deems you uninsurable…
        ….did i just suggest a “corporate” solution to a legal problem?
        PS: If this comment is too “jake like” for you to explain why its wrong, i understand…i’ll just ‘shut up and play my guitar’. Thanks

          1. Charles

            Rouge on a cop is still a cop.

            P.S. Good thing the Fed is raising interest rates. Inflation really has affected that math captcha.

          1. Jay

            I am embarrassed for you. I tried to keep up once or twice, and when SHG put me in my place I stayed there, leaving the experts to discuss what was above my head. The first couple of times were entertaining, to see a young whippersnapper being schooled and put in his place.

            Now you are just wasting bandwidth and taking away from a productive discussion. It shouldn’t ‘make your day’ to become the inside joke of the week which appears to be the embodiment of youthful ignorance and arrogance. If this makes your day, then you should seek attention elsewhere, and stop making young people look like lazy assholes.

            1. SHG Post author

              In fairness, Jake has been a dear friend to me, helping me with computer stuff when the shit hits the fan, so he knows he’s allowed to take liberties here because he’s earned it. He’s still annoying, but I love him.

        1. Charlie

          I agree with this solution. The state takes my license plates away if my auto insurance lapses. Why can’t this work for LEOs? Don’t pay your insurance premium, lose your cop certification. And thus, lose your job.

  4. B. McLeod

    I haven’t spent any time analyzing this case, but the thing that stands out is the courts must have concluded there is not a basis for direct civil rights liability on the part of Hartford in this case, meaning that the officer was not shown to be acting pursuant to local policy and plaintiff didn’t manage to land any failure to train or failure to supervise theory. There must be something of an uncommonly narrow fact pattern which brings this case down to whether Hartford will voluntarily step in to pay a judgment that was somehow rendered only against the officer. It isn’t going to happen a lot. So yes, it is a big problem for the plaintiff in this case, but probably is going to have limited impact in the civil rights arena overall.

      1. B. McLeod

        Of course. But courts and juries have found policy or custom to be operative in a large number of cases, and plaintiffs have been allowed in many instances to attempt to base a claim of policy or custom on a single occurrence. I’m frankly too lazy to go out looking for a statistical breakdown, but I haven’t seen a lot of reported cases where liability was found only against the officer(s).

        1. SHG Post author

          Liability is almost always only against the officers, Jake. Municipalities generally indemnify of practical or contractual necessity, but not legal duty in the absence of a Monell cause of action.

          1. JR

            Sounds like a great contract the city has with the police. “We will always go to court for you.” and in the fine print, “except if we lose, then you are on your own. Heads, I win, tails you lose.”

  5. Aaron

    Maybe JG Wentworth can get the money moving. I’d enjoy a nice mob-chant of “It’s my money and I want it now!” outside the Hartford mayor’s office.

  6. Bryan Burroughs

    To hell with personal liability. Go after the police pension fund. If it’s really just a few bad apples, then surely the good guys will run out the bad guys, or else they’ll have no retirement just so Officer Dickhead can get his rocks off breaking kneecaps.

    1. SHG Post author

      That has even more problems, as pensions are vested, often constitutionally protected, and can’t be undone, so it just means pensions have to be paid from other funds.

      1. Bryan Burroughs

        Then push for an amendment to override that. I’d like see police stand up and argue that they should be able to beat people with impunity in the discussion surrounding the proposal. Use LEO logic against them: if you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear.

        The alternative we have now is basically no responsibility at all, as this situation shows. Let cops consider eating dog food in retirement and see if attitudes don’t start changing.

        1. SHG Post author

          When your only view is about police violence, that appears to be a totally reasonable change. When your view is about unions, employee rights and vested pensions, everything shifts. It will never happen, and the reasoning is sound from one perspective if entirely wrong from another.

  7. ElSuerte

    I took a look at page 4 of the verdict and I have a question.

    Can you include in jury instructions information about who would be legally liable to pay what kind of damages and the party’s ability to pay?

    I wonder if the jury would have awarded different damages if they knew the city would be on the hook for compensatory damages (which they had to idemnify per statute), but not the punative damages, and that the officer would be judgement proof for the punative damages (assuming he was).

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