Police liability: 'Every taxpayer in York County is paying for verdicts such as the Floyd verdict'

Matt Enright
York Dispatch
Police car lights. (Dreamstime/TNS)

As national attitudes about policing shift and departments settle with victims of misconduct, the cost to insure against law enforcement liability is rising.

And that will inevitably be passed down to taxpayers.

"We do anticipate that some of the aftermaths, so to speak, of the large awards across the nation are going to be passed on to the consumer particularly through insurance liability providers," said David Steffen, president of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and himself police chief at Northern Lancaster County Regional.

In York County, commissioners recently approved a significant increase in its insurance contract, driven primarily by law enforcement liability. Its contract for 2021 is $831,100 — a more than $200,000 increase over the previous year.

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County Administrator Mark Derr said the county's broker shops the insurance package to various insurance companies.

"They basically came back and said 'Here are the lowest prices from people who were willing to quote it, and here's the prices," he said. 

The increase, Derr said, impacts the sheriff's department, the Youth Development Center and probation. He said it was specifically related to litigation and awards on lawsuits against police departments.

Insurers are getting out of the business of insuring law enforcement, Derr said. Between the claims that are being submitted and the payouts from juries, prices for insurance are going up.

"Every taxpayer in York County is paying for verdicts such as the [George] Floyd verdict," he said.

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It's not just York County.

Steffen said that law enforcement liability is rising around Pennsylvania and the country.

In his role as a chief in northern Lancaster County, Steffen said he hadn't seen his department's law enforcement liability rise, but there are certain things that can be done to hedge against increases.

That includes policy developments and risk containment measures such as body cameras, police car cameras, filming of interrogations or interviews and surveillance video of detention and processing areas.

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"Technology has assisted us in providing a hedge against some of those things that adheres to best practices, but the cost of the awards that have been provided to some of these plaintiffs is certainly impactful," Steffen said.

It's not one specific incident that's driving it, Steffen said, but rather the totality of the awards. Like providing insurance for any other person or agency, insurers analyze the risks in order to set their rates. 

"So if they're assessing potential payouts associated with some of these plaintiffs and the attitudes of these juries towards police right now," he said, "I guess when you do that assessment, the fact of the matter is the increases are to be expected." 

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In high-profile cases like the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, large settlements have followed. The city of Minneapolis settled for $27 million with Floyd's family in March, while the city of Louisville, Kentucky, settled with Taylor's family for $12 million in Sept. 2020.

Pennsylvania NAACP president Kenneth Huston said insuring officers has been an issue, even more so given recent high-profile incidents of excessive force.

"We're actually trying to build relationships with police because this is something that they are bringing to our attention," he said.

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His organization is working with Pennsylvania State Police to recruit more minorities into the ranks and improve the agency's relationship with minority communities. 

"One of the things that we're trying to do is we're trying to look at how the culture of police is looked at by the communities in which they served," he said.

Steffen, however, said that he sees the two issues as separate.

"I don't know that if a [police] agency is being sued for a civil rights violation related to an excessive use of force that having a good community stakeholder relationship is going to make any difference at all," he said. "Cases are factually driven." 

— Matthew Enright can be reached through email at menright@yorkdispatch.com and on Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.