OPD’s Outside Legal Costs Are Down in FY 2011-2012; But is It Progress?

Today Oakland’s City Attorney announced that the cost of outside legal counsel was down by 40% in 2011-2012 compared to the previous year, and that the cost of legal settlements for the whole city has fallen by 50%. It’s a welcome bit of news for the cash-strapped government. With respect to settlements paid out, a press release issued by the City Attorney’s office explains that:

“Payouts for claims and lawsuits fell from a high of $12.8 million in FY 2010-11 to $6.05 million in FY 2011-12. Payouts spiked in FY 2010-11 mainly due to settlements in about ten high liability cases involving police matters – use of force, wrongful death, police vehicle accidents and police labor complaints. Payouts in police cases were dramatically lower this year – from $7.65 million in FY 2010-11 to $2.89 million in the most recent fiscal year [bold in original].”

My own scan of the city’s legal settlement payouts related to police misconduct show a different, higher figure. Police misconduct leading to legal settlements forced Oakland to forfeit $4.668 million last year. The difference in accounting between the City Attorney’s and my own estimate is probably due to the fact that they’re not counting two $1.2 million payouts last year into trust accounts managed by lawyers James Chanin and John Burris, money related to the Riders settlement from almost a decade ago. It’s a fair exclusion since these are not settlements from the current year, but it doesn’t give a full accounting of how much OPD officer misconduct cost Oakland last year.

If one adds other costs associated with federal oversight of OPD by the court appointed monitor Police Performance Solutions, legal defense of OPD officers by outside firms such as Rains Lucia Stern and Burnham Brown, investigations into officer misconduct by independent law firms such as Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai, and special investigations such as that carried out by the Frazier Group, as well as smaller numerous legal expenses related to employment law, arbitration, and court reporting, the total for outside legal costs paid by OPD last year was $7,161,598.

Last year OPD’s total expenditures on all goods and services, including everything from dog food and gasoline, to legal defense and arbitration, was $17.6 million, according to an expenditure report provided by OPD. That means that last year 40% of OPD’s expenditures went toward employing outside law firms, paying out settlements, and paying independent teams of lawyers to investigate officer misconduct due to OPD’s poorly staffed and managed Internal Affairs and Criminal Investigations Divisions. The Frazier Group singled out OPD’s faulty system of internal investigations of officer misconduct in their report earlier this year, quoting officers who admitted they “had little faith” in the department’s ability to police itself, and that such investigations are often a “wast of time.”

Among other notable things about OPD’s legal expenses last year was that the Frazier Group came in about $9,000 under budget in producing their comprehensive report detailing OPD’s numerous institutional problems. The report will only prove to be a valuable bargain if city leaders implement its many recommendations, however.

While OPD’s legal expenses may be down this year after having spiked in FY 2010-2011, it is very likely that costs will spike again in future years due to numerous recent cases of alleged police violence, false arrests, and clear violations of the department’s own policies and procedures, with many of these violations having been recorded and broadcasts over the Internet during the Occupy Oakland street demonstrations of late 2011 and early 2012.

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