There are many ways to calculate the cost of the shot fired by Mohamed Noor that ended the life of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
The most obvious cost is to Damond herself — a life ended by a cop who panicked in a misapplication of his training. There’s also the lifelong emotional cost to Damond’s fiancé, her family and her friends.
There’s also Noor, who lost his job and will live his life under a pall of guilt.
Then there’s the cost to his fellow cops, the ones who didn’t fire and were not on trial. Many of them do try to serve with compassion and hold their fire until there’s clear evidence of a threat. They know that citizens in need will now approach them with fear in their eyes.
But there’s a larger cost for all of us Minneapolitans. It’s not just the shaken trust that makes us warier even of good cops.
It may seem crass to speak here of money. But the cost of the settlement with the victim’s family is the cost that those of us all across the city are likely to bear when we pay taxes on our property.
The figure of $20 million was jawdropping, as one former city finance official put it. I was prepared for $5 million, a figure that exceeds the previous record police payout in Minneapolis for an erroneous shooting. Or even $10 million.
But $20 million? That’s a figure that costs us all, even if spread out over our more than 122,000 taxable parcels.
The money will come from the city’s self-insurance fund. That fund is financed by city departments that incur tort liability and worker compensation costs. Sometimes the city or its workers make a mistake. Small claims are paid off by the City Council’s tight-fisted claims committee. Bigger ones go to court. The self-insurance fund is the bank.
Sometimes cops are injured on the job. Sometimes they make bad policing judgments. Those happen frequently enough that the police department already ranks highest among city departments for the premium rate it pays into this citywide revolving fund. That premium is built into the department’s budget, but not to the tune of $20 million.
The hit to the self-insurance fund is all the more painful because of its financial resuscitation over the past 15 or so years. Former Mayor R.T. Rybak inherited a self-insurance fund that was nearly $49 million in the hole when he was sworn in. That’s because the tandem of Council President Jackie Cherryhomes and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton let the fund drain without sufficient replenishment.
Remember the 8% annual increases in the property levy that were the hallmark of Rybak’s first two terms? The deficit in the self-insurance fund and its sister internal revolving funds consumed about one-quarter of that as Rybak instilled fiscal discipline in the city budget. His ally in that was Southwest’s 13th Ward council member, Barret Lane. Restoring the fund eventually freed up $21 million in the city budget for discretionary spending or property tax relief.
The city’s self-insurance fund had a net worth of $28.7 million as of the city’s most recent financial report. The huge settlement likely will wipe out years of progress in replenishing the fund. The new drain on the fund could be offset by charging even higher premiums to the police department, eating up resources that otherwise could be used to hire more cops or for other department needs, like training. Or the city could rebuild the fund with general fund reserves, reducing its investment earnings and the opportunity to use that money for other purposes. It could even sell general-obligation judgment bonds, which would allow this extraordinary cost to be financed over time — for an interest cost, something CFO Mark Ruff doesn’t favor. He’d like to develop a four- to five-year plan to beef up the fund, in part for rising worker compensation costs and for better coverage on city buildings.
The extraordinary size of the settlement compared with past city settlements and those of other well-publicized police settlements in Minnesota raises questions.
Did the City Council approve too large a settlement too soon without taking time for tougher bargaining? Two council members I’ve spoken with reject this. They say that two days of mediation had been scheduled for months and just coincidentally began on the day following the unexpectedly swift verdict; they approved the settlement the next day. They didn’t want to force another round of transcontinental travel on the plaintiff. They said they didn’t want to risk putting the family’s claim for $50 million before a federal court jury after the first on-duty murder conviction of a cop in the state’s recall. They say that the potential liability for $50 million sitting on the books before the trial could have threatened the high bond ratings that the city has enjoyed since the Rybak administration reformed city finances. They say they didn’t want the department paralyzed while the plaintiff attorney took dozens of officer depositions.
Other questions remain. Does self-insurance accumulate too fat a target for plaintiff attorneys? How was the decision made to earmark $2 million to combat gun violence in the city? Wouldn’t the $2 million have been more transformational if it had been devoted to retraining any police officers who demonstrate a proclivity to shoot before a threat assessment?
Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano said that testimony demonstrated Noor’s actions didn’t result from faulty police training but rather an officer who disregarded his training. She said that colleagues Andrea Jenkins and Jeremiah Ellison pushed for a portion of the settlement to benefit communities of color disproportionately affected by gun violence. It was clear, she said, that the family didn’t want any settlement that gave money back to the city for any purpose.
For cops, the settlement should pose obvious lessons. This is the cost of cowboy policing. It’s the cost of warrior training. This is the cost of a blue wall of silence that keeps cops on the streets who shouldn’t be on the force. The actions of those cops result in insurance costs that make it harder to afford more officers.
For the rest of us, there’s a $20 million bill.