Phoenix police end officers' clout to negotiate claims
By Christina Leonard
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 3, 2002
Phoenix police officials have diluted a program aimed at saving the department thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars by allowing officers to negotiate claims.
The program's founders believed that apologizing to victims of incidents ranging from wrecks to police brutality and giving them immediate financial compensation cut out expensive litigation. They also said it worked wonders for public relations.
But administrators now say it's not right for officers to negotiate claims even though leaders of the Police Department's Incident Review Unit say their work reduced both the volume of claims filed and the amount paid since its 1999 launch.
In fiscal 1999, the department paid about $6 million in auto- and general-liability claims. That figure dropped every year, with the department reporting $1.3 million paid out in fiscal 2002, according to July figures.
Gerald Richard, director of the Police Department's legal support division, said the city's Risk Management Department is better equipped than police officers to handle claims.
"Here comes someone representing the Police Department with a gun on their hip and a badge on their waist and saying we would like to talk about a settlement. That's not a good thing," he said.
For 21 months, Sgt. David Lane's job was "to make things go away" as the head of the Incident Review Unit.
Armed with a gun, a badge and $2,000 cash, Lane was on-call 24 hours a day to respond to such potential liabilities as accidents involving officers, police shootings and dog bites.
His goal: reduce claims and make the city look good.
Lane, who is involved in an unrelated civil lawsuit against the department that alleges he was unfairly reassigned, admitted some of the folks he dealt with got raw deals. Still, he believes the system could have worked if the department had authorized his unit to negotiate with more money.
"The intent of the unit was not to go out and intimidate people and scare them," he said. "The intent of the unit was to go out and treat people good."
Lane said he handled negotiations in 15 to 20 cases.
Department memos outline several incidents that were considered to be successes:
In March 2000, undercover officers filmed an incident that seemed to show a Phoenix police officer throwing a man headfirst down stairs and then pushing another patron outside a central Phoenix bar. Two officers were fired after an internal investigation found they had lied.
Media pounced on the videotape, showing the scene repeatedly. But reporters never interviewed the two victims.
Police say that's because the unit stepped in and the two victims "were unavailable for interviews as a result of their agreements with the city," according to a police memo.
The victims were paid $10,500, which was split between the city and the bar's insurance carrier, the memo said. City officials estimated they would have paid $100,000 to $300,000 if the case had gone to a jury.
"Could he (one of the victims) have gotten a lot more than that? Absolutely, much, much more," Lane said. "He went to Mexico and bought a farm. His whole family lives there now. We didn't get any bad press out of it. There weren't cameras out there filming this guy's face, and it was all bruised and everything . . . We made a mistake. We screwed up. We tried to correct it.
"We saved the citizens a lot of money."
In June 2000, Phoenix officers forced Richard Salinas to kneel on the hot asphalt during a stop, and he suffered burns to his knees that required skin grafts, a memo said. The department admitted fault, and settled the case, without an outside attorney, for $25,000. Police say they would have paid more than $100,000 if the case had gone to court, according to the memo. Salinas, who said he still suffers from the burns and works on his knees as a cement finisher, said that he wanted to do what was best for everybody, so he agreed to the settlement. But "they were very unfair to say the least, and I let them know as such," he said. Police dog attack
In July 1999, an unleashed German shepherd police dog running alongside its trainer attacked Susan Thomas while she was riding a bicycle at the Deer Valley airport. Again, the unit built a rapport with the victim, expediting the claim process, a memo said. "As a result, the department received NO media exposure regarding the incident," a memo said. "The following week, the Chandler police received extensive negative media exposure on a dog bite incident involving one of their canines." The department did end up paying out $60,000 to the woman, but the memo noted "it is impossible to place a dollar value on the unit's actions in this case, it was an obvious plus for the department's reputation within the community."
Lane said that his unit, which included one sergeant and two detectives, generally made the initial contact with the injured party. If a police officer crashed into a resident's car during a pursuit, or the SWAT team burst into the wrong house, Lane said the unit could rent cars, or fix doors and windows. The unit negotiated but never directly settled claims because the city's Risk Management Department would authorize the actual check.
Don't go to media Lane said he would tell people, "If you go to the media, and you go get an attorney, we can't deal with you anymore."
He added that although some people thought they should have gotten more money, he pointed out that attorneys could get 25 to 40 percent of any payout.
The negotiations didn't always go as planned, however. In one incident in November 1999, Cheryl Klompien called 911 while her ex-boyfriend was following her. She told the dispatcher he carried a gun.
The dispatcher directed her to a Barnes & Noble at Metrocenter, where the boyfriend fired his gun into her car while she waited for the officer.
While at the hospital, police told Klompien they did nothing wrong, according to a claim against the department. "In a carefully scripted charade, (police) advised Cheryl that although she had no legitimate claim against the city of Phoenix, the city of Phoenix was 'concerned' for her well-being and would like to assist in what they knew would be difficult financial circumstances," the claim said. The police offered her $5,000. An attorney later used that visit against the department, claiming the city tried to defraud her and violated her constitutional privacy rights. She was paid $600,000.
Basis in Los Angeles
The 4-year-old program was initially modeled after one at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, sheriff's Lt. Ralph Webb said, adding that the "vast majority" of people are happy to get their damages paid quickly.
"Basically, we're getting bang for the buck," Webb said. "The longer you drag the litigation on, the more expensive it is. If it's bad today, let's go ahead and settle before the price goes up."
Assistant Chief Jack Harris, who oversees the unit, said police officers are not claims adjusters, and it would take extensive training for them to become experts.
The Phoenix unit still does help to reduce claims, including reviewing policies and training officers. It has implemented an early warning system on potential troublemakers and still responds to scenes with lawsuit potential.
But now the unit only facilitates needs such as renting cars and explaining how to file claims.