Lawsuits involving the police:
a content analysis of newspaper
Carol A. Archbold
Department of Criminal Justice and Political Science,
North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota, USA
Division of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati,
Ohio, USA, and
Corneshia Weatherall, Ann Romero and Catherine Baumann
Social and Cultural Sciences, Marquette University, Milwaukee,
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to study lawsuits involving the police using newspaper
accounts from three large cities in the USA.
Design/methodology/approach – A content analysis was conducted using 634 newspaper articles
from the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and the Los Angeles Times from 1993-2003.
Findings – Research findings reveal how prevalent racial and gender discrimination issues are in
lawsuits involving the police; some of the differences in lawsuits filed bypolice employees compared to
those filed by citizens; the extent of disciplinary action taken against police officers named in lawsuits,
and any organizational changes (i.e. department policies, procedures, or training) made as a result of
lawsuits filed against police agencies.
Research limitations/implications – The findings from this study are based solely on what the
newspapers chose to report. It may be the case that newspapers only report on extraordinary lawsuits
involving the police, or lawsuits that result in moderate to large jury awards or settlements.
Practical implications – Since there is currently no national data collection effort focused on
lawsuits filed against the police, researchers are left to use the data sources available to them (in this
case, newspaper articles).
Originality/value – This paper presents the first study of lawsuits involving the police using
newspaper accounts. Previous studies have used survey data, court records, and interviews.
Keywords Legal action, Administration of justice, Police, Newspapers, Liability,
United States of America
Paper type Research paper
Litigation involving police agencies is a frequent topic of discussion among police
administrators across the USA. This issue has been a concern for some time as the
number of lawsuits involving police agencies has continued to increase since the late
1960s (Franklin, 1993; Kappeler, 2001; McCoy, 1987). As a result of the rising number of
lawsuits, the monetary costs associated with police-involved litigation also continue to
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 31 December 2005
Revised 4 May 2006
Accepted 17 May 2006
Policing: An International Journal of
Police Strategies & Management
Vol. 29 No. 4, 2006
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
increase. For example, from 2001-2004 the city of Detroit paid out $44.7 million as a
result of lawsuits based on police misconduct (Detroit Free Press, 2005). This is
significantly higher than the $32 million that was paid out for the previous three-year
time period, which was also a result of lawsuits based on police misconduct (Detroit
Free Press, 2005). It is expected that this trend in litigation will continue in coming
years as the USA becomes more populated and diverse (MacManus, 1997). Because of
this predicted trend, it is important to learn as much as possible about the causes, and
ultimately, the impact of litigation involving the police.
In the last two decades, lawsuits involving police agencies have been studied from a
variety of perspectives including the extent to which the fear of litigation impacts
police officer behavior (Garrison, 1995; Hughes, 2001; Novak et al., 2003); the impact of
community policing on civil liability involving the police (Worrall, 1998; Worrall and
Gutierrez, 1999), and the frequency of lawsuits involving the police in the USA (Chiabi,
1996; Human Rights Watch, 1998; MacManus, 1997; Meadows and Trostle, 1998;
Vaughn et al., 2001). Other recent studies have examined the strategies used by some
police agencies to prevent or manage lawsuits, including the implementation of risk
management programs (Archbold, 2004, 2005) and early warning/intervention systems
(Walker et al., 2001; Walker, 2005).
Although this topic has enjoyed a considerable amount of attention from
researchers, there is still a lot to learn about lawsuits involving the police. For example,
previous studies have revealed little information about the people responsible for filing
lawsuits against the police (i.e. gender, race, or profession). Also, police-involved
litigation based on allegations of racial and gender discrimination has only been the
focus of one study conducted in the past. There has also been limited research on
lawsuits filed against police agencies by their own employees (Worrall and Gutierrez,
1999; Vaughn et al., 2001). Research on disciplinary actions taken against police
officers that are named in lawsuits is at best, scant (Vaughn et al., 2001). And finally,
there has been limited research on any changes that are made within police
organizations as a result of litigation (such as changes made to department policies,
police training, recruitment/hiring, and promotion) (Vaughn et al., 2001).
Some of the gaps in the existing literature are in part, a result of the data sources
that have been used to study this topic. Since there are currently no national data
collected on lawsuits involving police agencies in the USA, researchers have had to rely
on survey data, court records, and interview data. One data source that has not been
used in previous studies is newspaper articles. The study presented in this paper
examines lawsuits filed against police agencies using newspaper accounts from the
Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times. Content analysis was
conducted using 634 newspaper articles from 1993-2003. This study begins to fill some
of the voids in the existing body of literature as it explores several topics associated
with police-involved litigation that have not been thoroughly examined in past
Lawsuits involving the police have been studied in a variety of ways by researchers in
the past two decades. Several of the previous studies have focused on the frequency of
lawsuits filed against police agencies (Dugan and Breda, 1991; Human Rights Watch,
1998; Kappeler, 2001; Kappeler et al., 1993; Meadows and Trostle, 1998). Another
popular focus of study has been determining the most common reasons that lawsuits
are filed against the police (Chiabi, 1996; del Carmen and Smith, 1997; Franklin, 1993;
Kappeler et al., 1993; Kappeler, 2001; Vaughn et al., 2001; Worrall and Gutierrez, 1999).
Others have studied how the threat of litigation impacts police officer behaviors and
actions as they interact with the public (Garrison, 1995; Hughes, 2001; Novak et al.,
2003; Scogin and Brodsky, 1991; Vaughn et al., 2001).
All of the previously mentioned studies have provided useful information on
lawsuits involving the police; however, there are several issues that have not been
addressed in earlier studies. Researchers have paid little attention to the lawsuits filed
against police agencies by police employees; the prevalence of racial and gender
discrimination as the basis of police-involved litigation; any disciplinary action taken
against police officers named in lawsuits filed by citizens, and any changes made
within police organizations as a result of lawsuits involving police personnel.
Lawsuits based on racial and gender discrimination
Research that focuses on racial and gender discrimination lawsuits filed against police
agencies is scarce in the existing body of literature. Most of the early studies do not
focus specifically on lawsuits involving claims of racial and gender discrimination;
instead they focus on some of the incidents that often lead to litigation, such as claims
of racial profiling/discrimination by citizens, or the unfair employment practices
involving female police officers (Collins, 2004; Lonsway, 2003), racial/ethnic minority
officers (Bolton, 2003; Decker and Huckabee, 2002; Doerner, 1995; Dowler, 2005;
Ho, 2005; Schroedel et al., 1996), and gay and lesbian police officers (Belkin and
Slonaker et al. (2001) conducted one of only a few studies that focus specifically on
discrimination claims within police agencies. This study explored discrimination
within the ranks of Ohio police agencies by analyzing closed discrimination cases from
1985-1999. Using data collected from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, Slonaker et al.
(2001, p. 296) discovered that male police officers filed most (72 percent) of the
discrimination claims, compared to 28 percent filed by female officers. Claims based on
racial discrimination comprised 25 percent of all claims made from 1985-1999, which
ended up being the most frequently used basis for claims of discrimination by police
personnel (Slonaker et al., 2001, p. 296). Over half (65 percent) of the complaints filed by
female police officers were based on allegations of discrimination based on sex
(Slonaker et al., 2001, p. 297). Based on the findings of their study, Slonaker et al. (2001)
suggest that police administrators make changes to the organizational culture within
their agencies to prevent or reduce discrimination, which in turn, could reduce claims
of discrimination in the workplace.
Other than the work previously described by Slonaker et al. (2001), there has been
limited academic research focused specifically on lawsuits involving claims of racial
and gender discrimination within police agencies. Additional research on this topic is
necessary, as police agencies will continue to diversify in the future.
Lawsuits filed against police agencies by police employees
Most of the early studies on police-involved litigation focus on lawsuits filed against
police agencies by citizens. Researchers have given limited attention to the lawsuits
that are filed against police agencies by their own employees. MacManus (1997)
examined the impact that costs associated with litigation involving California
municipalities (including police agencies) have on the budgets of local government.
The research findings in this study revealed that an increase in lawsuits filed by
municipal employees (including police personnel) was one of five factors that
contributed the most to rising litigation costs (MacManus, 1997, p. 37). In addition,
slightly more than half (51 percent) of the surveyed municipalities identified the police
as the most negatively affected area for budgetary costs associated with litigation
(MacManus, 1997, pp. 36-7). Even though this study focuses specifically on California
municipalities, it is likely that other states are experiencing similar budgetary restraint
issues as a result of increasing costs associated with litigation. Additional research in
other regions across the USA is needed to understand the breadth of this problem fully.
Worrall and Gutierrez (1999) surveyed municipal attorneys to study litigation in
police agencies that utilize community policing practices. This study identified
lawsuits filed against police agencies by both citizens and police employees. The top
three reasons that police employees filed lawsuits against their employers include
allegations of sexual harassment, wrongful discharge, and discrimination during
hiring or promotion (Worrall and Gutierrez, 1999). Based on the findings of their
exploratory study, Worrall and Gutierrez (1999) suggested that there may be a
relationship between litigation and community policing. More specifically, by
empowering police officers through the use of community policing strategies, there
may be an unintended consequence of increased litigation involving police agencies
and their employees (Worrall and Gutierrez, 1999). This study revealed some important
information about employee-initiated lawsuits in police agencies employing 100 or
more police officers; however, the authors note that the findings are based on only 50
surveys (Worrall and Gutierrez, 1999).
More recently, Vaughn et al. (2001) surveyed Texas police chiefs on a variety of
issues related to police-involved litigation. Vaughn’s survey included questions that
focused on lawsuits that had been filed against Texas police agencies by police
employees. Data analysis revealed that only 12 percent of the Texas police chiefs
reported that one or more of their employees had sued them in the past three years
(Vaughn et al., 2001). Similar to Worrall and Gutierrez (1999), Vaughn et al. (2001)
found that sexual harassment/discrimination, allegations of unnecessary disciplinary
actions, and discrimination during hiring, promotion, or termination were the most
common reasons that Texas police officers filed suit against their employers. In
addition, Vaughn et al. (2001, pp. 7-8) also revealed that Texas police agencies were
more likely to lose lawsuits to police employees (41 percent) compared to the number of
lawsuits lost to citizens (22 percent). Vaughn et al. (2001) note that these findings may
not be representative of police agencies outside of the state of Texas, and suggest that
future research include other states across the USA.
Disciplinary action taken against police officers involved in lawsuits
Do police officers involved in lawsuits filed by citizens face any disciplinary action
from within their police agencies? Studies that address this question are scarce in the
existing body of police liability literature. Vaughn et al. (2001, p. 15) found that only 10
percent of Texas police chiefs reported that they “always” discipline police officers that
are named in lawsuits. Over half (53 percent) of the police chiefs participating in the
study reported that they “sometimes or never” discipline police officers involved in
lawsuits, even if money was paid out to plaintiffs in those cases (Vaughn et al., 2001,
p. 15). These findings suggest that police officers do not always face consequences
within their police agencies when they become involved in lawsuits filed by citizens.
Collins (2004) conducted a recent study that focused on disciplinary actions given
out to law enforcement officers that have been found guilty of sexual harassment in the
state of Florida. This study is based on a content analysis of sexual harassment case
records from the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission from
1993-1997 (Collins, 2004, p. 521). This Commission is responsible for taking
disciplinary action against certified law enforcement officers in Florida for violations
ranging from failure to maintain minimum qualification standards, to other issues
related to “good moral character”, including sexual harassment (Collins, 2004). Data
analysis revealed that the Commission does not accept or handle a large number of
sexual harassment cases, as there were only 89 cases handled by the Commission for
the entire state of Florida from 1993-1997. In addition, the discipline imposed by the
Commission was found to be “often insubstantial” as punitive discipline was imposed
in only 36 percent of the cases (Collins, 2004, p. 529), and in only two cases, certification
tobealawenforcementofficer inthestateofFloridawasrevoked(Collins,2004, p.530).
In another study, Lersch and Feagin (1996) found that police officers that were
involved in unjustified violent encounters with citizens were rarely ever punished for
their actions. This study examined newspaper accounts of violent encounters between
police officers and citizens in 15 US newspapers from 1990-1992. Data analysis
revealed that police officers were disciplined in only 13 percent of the cases where they
were involved in unjustified violent encounters with citizens (Lersch and Feagin, 1996,
p. 42). In those cases where police officers were disciplined, “five of the officers lost
their jobs, six were either reassigned to desk duty or suspended with pay, four were
suspended from duty without pay for 10 to 60 days, and only two officers were charged
with criminal offenses” (Lersch and Feagin, 1996, p. 42). This finding is surprising
given that unjustified violent encounters with citizens are considered to be a serious act
of police misconduct in most police agencies in the USA.
Although there have only been a few studies conducted on the extent of discipline of
police officers either named in lawsuits or involved in some act of police misconduct,
the findings in these studies suggest that, in general, there are few consequences for
police officers involved in such incidents. Additional research is needed to further
understand the extent of disciplinary action taken against police officers that are
involved in lawsuits filed by citizens.
Organizational change as a result of litigation involving the police
There has been some debate about the extent to which lawsuits prompt change within
police organizations (Alpert and Smith, 1994; Cheh, 1995; Fyfe, 1988; Walker and
Fridell, 1992; Walker, 2005). The debate centers round any change that is made to
department policies, police training, supervision, and the adoption of programs aimed
to prevent or manage liability (including early intervention systems or risk
management programs). This debate has continued for the last few decades with
little empirical evidence supporting either side of the argument.
Vaughn et al. (2001) surveyed Texas police chiefs about changes made within their
police organizations as a result of litigation. They discovered that 68 percent of Texas
police chiefs could not identify any policy changes as a direct result of previous
litigation involving their agencies (Vaughn et al., 2001, p. 12). The police chiefs that did
report some change to policies that would impact citizens, most often identified
changes to vehicular pursuit and use of force policies (Vaughn et al., 2001, p. 12). Even
fewer (14 percent) changes to policies that would directly impact police officers were
reported by Texas police chiefs (Vaughn et al., 2001). In the few instances where police
chiefs’ did report such changes, employment policies related to disciplinary
procedures, issues related to overtime/compensation, and sexual harassment and
discrimination were most often cited (Vaughn et al., 2001, p. 12). Texas police chiefs
were also asked for their opinion of some of the best ways to prevent lawsuits. Some of
the most common strategies for preventing lawsuits reported by police chiefs included
treating people fairly; improved police training; better supervision over police officers;
improved screening process of applicants, and early identification of problem police
officers (Vaughn et al., 2001, p. 16).
On reviewing the existing body of police liability literature, it is clear that additional
research is needed to fully understand the complex issue of litigation involving the
police. The study presented in this paper examines lawsuits involving the police using
a data source that has never been used to study this topic – newspaper articles. The
current study explores some of the topics that have been given limited attention in
earlier studies conducted on police-involved litigation. More specifically, this study
addresses the following research questions:
. What is the prevalence of lawsuits filed against police agencies that are based on
allegations of racial/ethnic and gender discrimination?
. What are some differences in lawsuits filed against police agencies by police
employees compared to those filed by citizens?
. What type of disciplinary action is taken against police officers named in
lawsuits filed by citizens?
. What changes are made to department policies, procedures, and training within
police organizations as a result of litigation involving police personnel?
Utility of newspaper articles as a data source
In the recent past, newspaper articles have been used as a main data source to study
police activities. Lersch and Feagin (1996) used newspaper articles from 15 major
newspapers to examine trends in police brutality. This study revealed that racial
minorities were involved in a majority of police brutality incidents, and that police
officers involved in these brutality incidents were unlikely to suffer any penalties for
their actions (Lersch and Feagin, 1996). This study is important because additional
information was revealed about violent police-citizen encounters (specifically during
interactions with racial/ethnic minorities) that had not been revealed in previous
studies that used other types of data. In addition, Lersch and Feagin (1996) were able to
demonstrate that newspaper accounts of police activities can be a useful data source
for researchers given the lack of nation-wide, systematic data on police brutality.
More recently, Lawrence (2000) studied media presentation of police use of force by
analyzing newspaper articles from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times from
1985-1994. Lawrence (2000) discovered that both newspapers infrequently reported on
police use of force, even though it has long been a controversial topic in both cities.
This study also provided an in-depth analysis of media coverage of the Rodney King
incident in Los Angeles, and three high-profile police use of force cases in New York
City to provide a better understanding of how use of force incidents are shaped and
defined by a variety of competing sources of information. Similar to Lersch and Feagin
(1996), Lawrence (2000) used newspaper articles to explore a topic focused on a police
activity where nation-wide, official data are not available.
Newspaper articles have never been used to examine lawsuits involving the police.
Similar to the lack of national data on police brutality (Lersch and Feagin, 1996) and
police use of force (Lawrence, 2000), there are currently no nation-wide, systematic data
collected on lawsuits involving the police. For the purpose of this study, the City
Attorney offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City were contacted by
telephone in an attempt to learn more about the availability of statistics on lawsuits
filed against police agencies in all three jurisdictions. Legal personnel in all three cities
reported that there are no official statistics on lawsuits filed against the police that are
published annually for public use or viewing. Because there are no official data on
lawsuits filed against the police agencies in these three cities, it is impossible to
determine the level of accuracy of newspaper reporting of police-involved litigation as
there is no baseline to compare against. While it is important to note this problem, it is
also important to recognize that the lack of official data on police-involved litigation
forces researchers to use creative and innovative means to learn more about this
This study includes newspaper articles that describe specific incidents of lawsuits
involving the police that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and the
Chicago Sun-Times from 1993-2003. These three newspapers were selected for this
study because of their high circulation rates, because they represent three distinct
regions in the USA that have diverse populations, and because lawsuits involving the
police have often been a focus of media attention in all three cities (Human Rights
A database search using ProQuest and Lexis/Nexis was conducted using two
search phrases: police and lawsuit(s); and settlement and police. Both of the database
searches produced a combined total of 6,516 newspaper articles. With the help of four
research assistants, all of the newspaper articles were examined for inclusion in the
dataset. After reviewing all of the newspaperarticles, it was determined that a majority
of the newspaper articles identified in the initial database searches would not be
suitable for this study. In the process of choosing which articles would be included in
the study, several criterion were considered:
First, all newspaper articles that were duplicates or reprinted news stories were
discarded during the cleaning of the data. It was common to see the same story printed
several times in one or more editions of the newspapers (i.e. early or late edition).
Duplicate articles were also common because two separate database searches were
conducted during data collection, which used the phrases “police and lawsuit(s)” and
“police and settlement(s)”. By conducting these two search phrases independently, it
was likely that some of the same newspaper articles would be identified in both
database searches; therefore, any overlap in the two searches would result in duplicate
articles. Duplication or reprints of stories eliminated a significant amount of the
newspaper articles from being included in this study.
Second, all newspaper articles that presented stories about lawsuits involving police
officers from outside of the metro area of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York were
discarded. It was common to find articles in the New York Times that presented
information about lawsuits involving police officers from New Jersey, Washington DC,
or other cities across the USA.
Third, all newspaper articles that did not specifically discuss a lawsuit involving
the police were discarded. For example, several articles would refer to national trends
in lawsuits involving the police, police officers involved in acts of misconduct that
resulted in appearances in criminal court and future lawsuits were expected to follow,
or newspaper articles that did not specifically discuss the details of lawsuits involving
the police (i.e. articles describing the lyrics of rap music referring to the police). Articles
that presented lawsuits that were filed against agencies other than law enforcement
agencies were also discarded from the dataset, as this study focuses only on lawsuits
filed against police agencies. For example, there were several instances where police
officers would file lawsuits against media companies based on allegations that media
source(s) misrepresented them to the public.
Fourth, all newspaper articles that were editorials or “letters to the editor” were not
included in the dataset. Since the purpose of this study is to examine newspaper
articles describing specific incidents of lawsuits involving the police, editorials would
not be appropriate to include in the dataset.
Finally, all newspaper articles that involved lawsuits filed against other city, state
or county government officials (i.e. county jail workers, state penitentiary correctional
officers or metro transit officers) were not included in the sample.
By using the inclusion criterion described above, we were able to identify only those
newspaper articles that described specific incidents of lawsuits that were filed against
the police in all three jurisdictions. All of the newspaper articles that were eliminated
during data cleaning did not provide any specific information about individual
incidents of lawsuits involving the police. By only including the newspaper articles
that discussed specific, individual lawsuits that had been filed against the police, we
were able to examine the frequency of the reporting of this issue in all three cities.
Coding the data
After all of the newspaper articles were sorted and organized by year, the newspaper
articles that featured specific lawsuits were grouped together. The database search
found several newspaper articles (printed on different days) that discuss the same
lawsuit, but in some cases each newspaper article provided new or additional details of
the lawsuit. The “like” articles were grouped together and given one code number for
reference in the database. For example, lawsuits involving Abner Louima in New York
City produced several hundred newspaper articles between the years of 1997 and 2001.
All of the newspaper articles related to the Abner Louima case were grouped together
and given one code number in the database (which means that the grouped articles
were only counted as one lawsuit). This was also the case with the vast amount of
as well as the Amadou Diallo case in New York City. The grouping of like articles that
discussed specific lawsuits produced a more accurate representation of the frequency
of reporting of lawsuits involving the police, and also allowed us to track the outcome
of most of the lawsuits reported in all three newspapers.
The articles were coded and then examined for specific categories of interest.
Coding included the following categories:
. the inclusion of the year the lawsuit was filed;
. the city or location where the lawsuit was filed;
. the name of the party filing the lawsuit;
. whether the person or group filing the lawsuit against the police was a citizen or
an employee of a police agency;
. reasons given for filing the lawsuit;
. if compensation was sought (money, promotion, apology, etc.);
. if race or gender discrimination played a role in the lawsuit;
. outcome of the lawsuit;
. was some type of payout received by the party that filed the lawsuit, and if so,
. was any type of accountability of police officers mentioned in the article or any
talk about making department changes to avoid similar lawsuits in the future;
. any specific details of the case as described by the police and/or the citizens filing
After sorting through all of the newspaper articles identified in the initial database
searches by using the previously described criterion, and then grouping and coding
like articles together, a total of 634 newspaper articles describing incidents of lawsuits
involving the police were included in the analysis (see Table I).
Most of the newspaper articles used in the content analysis identified some type of
demographic information about the person(s) filing lawsuits against the police. For
example, the gender of the person(s) filing suit against the police was identifiable in all
of the newspaper articles. More males (350/634 or 55 percent) filed lawsuits against the
police than did females (136/634 or 21 percent), or lawsuits that named both male and
female plaintiffs (148/634 or 24 percent). The race/ethnicity of the plaintiff was
mentioned in 25 percent (159/634) of the newspaper articles. In the articles that
mentioned the race of the plaintiff(s), 46 percent (74/159) where identified as African
American, 36 percent (57/159) were identified as Hispanic/Latino, 6 percent (nine/159)
were identified as Indian, 5 percent (eight/159) were identified as Asian, and 7 percent
1993-1995 1996-1998 1999-20012002-2003
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
Sources: As reported in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, 1993-2003
Incidents of lawsuits
involving the police
(11/159) of the incidents involved multiple people of multiple races/ethnicities. The
occupation or employment status of the plaintiff was also mentioned in 33 percent
(211/634) of the newspaper articles. And finally, 19 percent (121/634) of the newspaper
articles included information about the plaintiffs’ past involvement in criminal
activities, or if they had previously spent time in prison. Even though information was
missing in some of the newspaper articles, this is one of only a few data sources that
actually provide some descriptive information on the people that file lawsuits against
Content analysis revealed specific details about lawsuits involving police agencies in
Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. The analysis also uncovered important
information about lawsuits that are filed against the police based on allegations of
racial or gender discrimination; lawsuits filed against police agencies by both citizens
and police employees; any disciplinary action taken against police officers named in
lawsuits, and any changes that were made within each police agency as a result of
Lawsuits based on racial and gender discrimination
Data analysis revealed that lawsuits based on racial and gender discrimination
comprised 30 percent of all lawsuits filed against police agencies in all three cities.
Slightly more than half (53 percent) of these lawsuits were filed by police personnel
compared to those filed by citizens (47 percent). Gender and racial discrimination
claims were the top two reasons that both citizens and police personnel filed
discrimination lawsuits against police agencies in all three cities. This finding is
similar to the research findings of Slonaker et al. (2001) and Vaughn et al. (2001) as
racial discrimination was the most common reason that police personnel filed lawsuits
against Texas law enforcement agencies.
In the current study, the outcome of racial and gender discrimination lawsuits filed
against police agencies in all three cities was reported in 40 percent of the newspaper
articles. Most (69 percent) of the racial and gender discrimination lawsuits were settled
outside of court. Only 8 percent of the lawsuits filed against police agencies for either
racial or gender discrimination were dismissed. There were very few racial and gender
discrimination lawsuits found in favor of either the plaintiff (14 percent) or defendant
(8 percent) (see Table II). More specifically, there were no lawsuits that resulted in favor
for either the plaintiff or defendant that were based on allegations of racial
discrimination. All but one racial discrimination lawsuit was settled outside of court.
Filed by citizens
Filed by police
Racial Gender Gender
Settled out of court
Found in favor of plaintiff(s)
Found in favor of defendant(s)
76 5250 (192)
Outcome of racial and
lawsuits filed against
Only gender discrimination lawsuits filed by police personnel resulted in jury decisions
either for plaintiffs or defendants. Of the lawsuits resulting in a jury decision, over half
(63 percent) of the gender discrimination lawsuits resulted in favor of plaintiffs
compared to 37 percent resulting in favor of defendants.
Monetary payouts resulting from either jury awards or settlements made outside of
court were reported in most (75 percent) of the newspaper articles featuring stories
based on racial and gender discrimination lawsuits. Costs associated with lawsuits
based on racial discrimination range from $512,000 to $250,000,000. It is important to
point out that this monetary figure only reflects the lawsuits that were settled outside
of court, as there were no racial discrimination cases that were decided by juries (see
Table II). There were several multi-million dollar settlements for racial discrimination
lawsuits because most of the lawsuits involved multiple plaintiffs claiming racial
discrimination (usually multiple police officers within the same police agency).
Settlement award information was not available for 11 percent of the racial
discrimination lawsuits used in this analysis.
Lawsuits based on gender discrimination included payouts ranging from
$4,000-$1,500,000. It is important to note that all of the lawsuits based on gender
discrimination that resulted in jury awards involved police personnel only (see Table II).
In contrast to racial discrimination lawsuits, most of the lawsuits based on gender
discrimination involved only one plaintiff (with a majority of the plaintiffs being female
police officers). There was no settlement award information provided in the newspaper
articles for six of the gender discrimination lawsuits that were settled outside of court.
Lawsuits filed by police employees compared to those filed by citizens
In the current study, most (73 percent) of the lawsuits filed against the police were filed
by citizens, compared to 27 percent filed by police personnel (including both sworn
police officers and civilian employees). Lawsuits filed against police agencies by police
employees account for approximately 25 percent of all lawsuits filed against police
agencies in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and 34 percent of all lawsuits filed against
the police in New York.
Most of the lawsuits filed by police employees are based on personnel issues that are
often regulated by department policies. For example, police employees filed 93 percent of
all lawsuits involving claims of sexual harassment as it was reported in all three
newspapers. When comparing the number of newspaper articles that describe lawsuits
involving some type of discrimination, lawsuits filed by police personnel easily exceeds
the number of discrimination lawsuits filed by citizens. More specifically, police
personnelfiled114 lawsuits against their employingpoliceagencies basedonallegations
of discrimination by age, gender, religion, disability, race, or sexual orientation,
compared to 94 discrimination lawsuits filed by citizens in all three cities combined.
Over half (66 percent) of the lawsuits filed by police personnel are based on claims of
some type of discrimination. For example, most (75 percent) of the newspaper articles
that describe lawsuits based on allegations of sexual harassment were filed by female
police officers. In 20 percent of those cases, police chiefs and other high-ranking police
supervisors were named as the persons inflicting sexual harassment on female patrol
Another prevalent issue with lawsuits filed by police employees is the claim of
unfair administrative practices. Lawsuits based on claims of unwarranted discipline or
demotion, dismissal/firing of police officers, and unfair hiring, promotion, and
retirement practices account for 23 percent of lawsuits filed by police personnel. Denial
of payment for overtime and on-the-job injuries was the basis for 3 percent of lawsuits
filed against police agencies. Other lawsuits filed by police employees include claims of
injury or death due to negligent actions of fellow police officers (4 percent), and claims
of physical and verbal attacks by fellow officers (4 percent). These findings parallel
those of Worrall and Gutierrez (1999) and Vaughn et al. (2001) in that most police
employees file lawsuits against their employers for sexual harassment, unwarranted
discipline, discrimination during promotion, or unwarranted dismissal/firing.
Vaughn et al. (2001, pp. 7-8) also revealed that Texas police agencies were more
likely to lose their lawsuits to police employees (41 percent) compared to lawsuits
resulting in favor of citizens (22 percent). The current study revealed that out of all of
the lawsuits that resulted in favor of the plaintiff, there were more lawsuits found in
favor of citizens (71 percent) compared to lawsuits that were found in favor of police
employees (29 percent). However, there were more lawsuits filed by citizens that were
dismissed compared to the number of dismissed lawsuits filed by police employees. In
addition, more lawsuits filed by police personnel (54 percent) resulted in settlement
compared to the number of settled lawsuits filed by citizens (46 percent).
Disciplinary action taken against police officers named in lawsuits
There have only been a few studies that have examined disciplinary actions taken
against police officers named in lawsuits filed by citizens (Vaughn et al., 2001), or that
were involved in unjustified violent encounters with citizens (Lersch and Feagin, 1996).
Vaughn et al. (2001) found that only 10 percent of Texas policechiefs reported that they
“always” discipline police officers involved in lawsuits. Lersch and Feagin (1996)
learned that police officers involved in unjustified acts of violence involving citizens
were rarely disciplined as a result of their involvement in such activities. Similar
results were uncovered in the current study, as most (93 percent) of the newspaper
articles did not mention any disciplinary action taken against police officers that were
named in lawsuits filed by citizens. It is possible that there was some disciplinary
action taken in instances where police officers were named in lawsuits, but the
newspaper failed to report it. It is also possible that the three newspapers did not report
any disciplinary actions in situations where discipline would not be warranted (i.e.
instances where lawsuits were filed due to allegations of improper training, inadequate
departmental policies, or flawed promotion or hiring processes).
In the newspaper articles that did report some type of disciplinary action taken
against police officers named in lawsuits, over half (54 percent) of the police officers
were fired or forced to resign/retire, compared to 46 percent of the police officers that
received some type of discipline (i.e. suspension with or without pay, mandatory
training/retraining, or either temporary or permanent reassignment). According to
newspaper accounts in all three cities, the top three reasons that police officers were
either fired or disciplined included lawsuits based on allegations of:
(1) physical abuse;
(2) racial discrimination/profiling; and
(3) coerced confessions/coercion (see Table III).
Changes within police organizations as a result of litigation
In the current study, most (92 percent) of the newspaper articles did not mention any
change within police organizations as a result of litigation involving police personnel.
This finding parallels the research of Vaughn et al. (2001, p.12) as they reported that 68
percent of the Texas police chiefs’ surveyed could not identify any policy changes that
would impact citizens as a direct result of litigation involving their police agencies. In
addition, the study also revealed that only 14 percent of Texas police chiefs reported
changes to policies that would impact how their police officers conduct police work as a
result of litigation (Vaughn et al., 2001, p. 12).
Newspaper articles that detail specific changes to policies, training, or the adoption
of accountability mechanisms (i.e. early warning systems, special prosecution units,
Officers fired/forced to resign or retire
Total number of police officers disciplined or fired
Officers fired/forced to resign or retire
Total number of police officers disciplined or fired
Failure to act
Officers fired/forced to resign or retire
Denial of civil rights
Misconduct (off duty)
Total number of police officers disciplined or fired
Sources: As presented in the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and Los Angeles Times, 1993-2003
Disciplinary action taken
against police officers
involved in litigation
etc) only account for 8 percent of all of the newspaper articles from all three cities. Of
the few newspaper articles that did mention changes made within police organizations,
44 percent reported that changes would be made to department policies. Some of the
most common policy changes reported in the newspaper articles include changes to use
of non-lethal force policies (i.e. use of taser guns, rubber bullets, canine units or mace),
sexual harassment policies, racial discrimination/profiling policies, and traffic stop
notification policies. Vaughn et al. (2001, p. 12) also found that Texas police chiefs
frequently mentioned sexual harassment/discrimination policies and use of force
policies as a main source of policy change resulting from police-involved litigation.
Slightly more than one-third (35 percent) of the newspaper articles reported changes
to procedures used within police agencies that would often result in litigation. Most
(90 percent) of the changes to procedures focused on departmental handling of
promotion, hiring, and dismissal of police officers. Vaughn et al. (2001, p. 12) also
mentioned several employment practices (including disciplinary procedures) as a
source of change to procedures due to litigation involving police employees.
Changes to police training were mentioned in 13 percent of the newspaper articles
that mentioned any change within police agencies as a result of litigation. All of the
changes in training that were mentioned in the newspaper articles were directly related
to departmental policies and procedures. For example, if a police agency made changes
to the use of non-lethal force policy, there would also be changes to training to
complement the change in policy. The practice of simultaneously making changes to
police training and department policies is an integral part of risk management in police
agencies that are on the cutting edge of police liability management (Archbold, 2004).
Plans to implement accountability programs (such as early intervention systems,
civilian review boards, or special prosecution units) were mentioned by police
administrators in only 8 percent of the newspaper articles. This finding is not
surprising given that most of the previously mentioned accountability programs have
only recently begun to appear in some of the largest police agencies in the USA
(Walker, 2005). It is possible that the police agencies did in fact adopt some type of
accountability program into their organizations as a result of litigation, but the
newspapers failed to report the changes.
In the last two decades, lawsuits involving police agencies in the USA have been
studied using a variety of data sources including surveys, interviews, and official court
records. The study presented in this paper uses an alternative data source to examine
this topic – newspaper articles. By using newspaper accounts, we were able to reveal
information about police-involved litigation that has not been examined in previous
research including: the prevalence of race and gender discrimination lawsuits
involving police agencies; lawsuits filed against police agencies by their employees;
disciplinary actions taken against police officers that are named in lawsuits; and any
changes that have been made with police agencies as a result of litigation.
The findings of this study are important for two reasons: First, this study
demonstrates that newspaper articles are a viable data source to study a topic where it
is difficult to retrieve detailed information about the subject – police-involved
litigation. Because of the sensitive nature of the subject, there are problems inherent in
every data source that has been used to study police-involved litigation in the past.
Since there is currently no national effort to collect data on lawsuits involving police
agencies in the USA, researchers are left to use the only data sources available to them.
Second, this study revealed several research findings that could impact police
liability management efforts in some US police agencies. For example, our data
analysis identified both gender and racial discrimination as the basis of frequent and
costly lawsuits filed against police agencies in all three cities. Interestingly, police
employees frequently filed both types of these lawsuits in this study. Perhaps changes
both in discrimination policies, and the manner in which those policies are enforced
within police agencies could help police administrators manage these particular types
of lawsuits. Data analysis also revealed that police officers involved in lawsuitsfiled by
citizens face little to no consequences from the police agencies by which they are
employed. Perhaps if police officers faced more stringent disciplinary actions for being
involved in lawsuits filed by citizens (where they were found to be responsible for the
allegations made by citizens), they would take extra precaution not to become involved
in such incidents in the future.
And finally, our data analysis suggests that some police agencies are attempting to
make changes to department policies, procedures, and police training in an attempt to
reduce litigation. Two out of the three newspapers reported the adoption of innovative
accountability programs (including early intervention systems, risk management
programs, and increased civilian oversight) to aid further in the management of
lawsuits filed against the police in their cities. Obviously, there are no “quick fixes” to
managing police liability incidents that often lead to litigation, but it is important that
police administrators continue to develop and adopt innovative strategies to reduce
lawsuits that are filed against their agencies.
As is the case with most data sources, there are some weaknesses associated with
using newspaper articles to study police-involved litigation. A major concern would be
the selective reporting process that occurs with most media sources, including
newspapers. We cannot be certain that the reporting of police-involved litigation by
newspapers accurately reflects the current state of police-involved litigation in the
USA. It may be the case that newspapers only report the most extreme or
extraordinary lawsuits (Robbennolt and Studebaker, 2003). Newspapers may also only
choose to report on lawsuits that involve moderate to large monetary awards or
settlements (Bailis and MacCoun, 1996). This type of selective reporting would skew
the accuracy of the frequency of lawsuits filed against police. Newspapers might also
only report the monetary awards identified in original verdicts, but not provide any
follow-up reports on cases where final disbursement awards ended up being
significantly less than what was awarded in original verdicts (Green et al., 1990-1991,
p. 817). In addition, newspapers may not report on all of the lawsuits that were rejected
or thrown out by the court on the grounds that the lawsuits were “frivolous”
(Robbennolt and Studebaker, 2003).
After considering some of the weaknesses associated with using newspaper articles
as a data source (in general), there are some limitations that should be noted when
considering the findings of the current study. First, the data collected and analyzed for
this study is based solely on what was reported in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago
Sun-Times, and New York Times. This means that the findings reported in this paper
rest on the accuracy of reporting by all three of these newspapers. How and why stories
on lawsuits involving the police were selected for publication in these three
newspapers (or any other newspapers), and the degree to which those stories selected
for publication represent the three jurisdictions featured in this study are unknown.
Second, the two search phrases used to collect newspaper articles for this study (“police
and lawsuits”; and “police and settlement”) could add selection bias to the sample.
Future studies that use newspaper articles as a data source could incorporate
additional search phrases. And finally, by choosing three newspapers that are located
in large, urban cities, the findings of this study are not generalizable to medium-sized
or small cities in the USA.
All of the previously mentioned limitations should be considered when researchers
use newspaper articles as a data source to study any topic or issue. It might be
beneficial to researchers to use newspaper articles in combination with other data
sources to study this topic (as well as other topics). In the case of studying
police-involved litigation, researchers are limited when it comes to data sources that
will provide the type of information they need to examine this topic fully – especially
when they are looking for specific details associated with each lawsuit filed against
police agencies. Until there is a nation-wide effort to systematically collect data on
litigation involving the police, researchers will have to continue to use innovative data
sources and research designs to learn more about this important issue faced by most
police administrators in the USA.
1. In 2003, the New York Times ranked third in the top 100 daily newspapers in the USA. The
Los Angeles Times was ranked fourth on the list, with the Chicago Sun-Times coming in at
thirteenth place (www.infoplease.com).
2. Even though the Rodney King incident took place in 1991, litigation involving that incident
carried over several years after the incident occurred in Los Angeles.
Alpert, G. and Smith, W.C. (1994), “Developing police policy: an evaluation of the control
principle”, American Journal of Police, Vol. 13, pp. 1-20.
Archbold, C.A. (2004), Police Accountability, Risk Management and Legal Advising, LFB
Scholarly Publishing, New York, NY.
Archbold, C.A. (2005), “Managing the bottom line: risk management in policing”, Policing:
An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 30-48.
Bailis, D.S. and MacCoun, R.J. (1996), “Estimating liability risks with the media as your guide:
a content analysis of media coverage of tort litigation”, Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 20
No. 4, pp. 419-29.
Belkin, A. and McNichol, J. (2002), “Pink and blue: outcomes associated with the integration of
open gay and lesbian personnel in the San Diego Police Department”, Police Quarterly,
Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 63-95.
Bolton, K. (2003), “Shared perceptions: Black officers discuss continuing barriers in policing”,
Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 26 No. 3,
Cheh, M. (1995), “Are lawsuits an answer to police brutality?”, in Geller, W. and Toch, H. (Eds),
Understanding and Controlling Police Abuse of Force, Police Executive Research Forum,
Chiabi, D.K. (1996), “Police civil liability: an analysis of Section 1983 actions in the eastern and
southern districts of New York”, American Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 21 No. 1,
Collins, S. (2004), “Sexual harassment and police discipline: who’s policing the police?”, Policing:
An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 512-38.
Decker, L.K. and Huckabee, R.G. (2002), “Raising the age and education requirements for police
officers: will too many women and minority candidates be excluded?”, Policing:
An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 789-802.
del Carmen, R.V. and Smith, M.R. (1997), “Police, civil liability, and the”, in Dunham, R.G. and
Alpert, G.P. (Eds), Critical Issues in Policing: Contemporary Readings, Waveland Press,
Prospect Heights, IL.
Detroit Free Press (2005), Report: Police Misconduct Lawsuits cost Detroit $44.7 Million over 3
Years, Detroit Free Press, Detroit, MI, July 6.
Doerner, W.G. (1995), “Officer retention patterns: an affirmative action concern for police
agencies?”, American Journal of Police, Vol. XIV Nos 3/4, pp. 197-210.
Dowler, K. (2005), “Job satisfaction, burnout, and perception of unfair treatment: the relationship
between race and police work”, Police Quarterly, Vol. 8 No. 4, pp. 476-89.
Dugan, J.R. and Breda, D.R. (1991), “Complaints about police officers: a comparison among types
and agencies”, Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 19 No. 5, pp. 165-71.
Franklin, C.J. (1993), The Police Officers’ Guide to Civil Liability, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield,
Fyfe, J. (1988), “Police use of deadly force: research and reform”, Justice Quarterly, Vol. 5 No. 2,
Garrison, A.H. (1995), “Law enforcement civil liability under federal law and attitudes on civil
liability: a survey of university, municipal, and state police officers”, Police Studies, Vol. 18,
Green, E., Goodman, J. and Loftus, E.F. (1990-1991), “Jurors’ attitudes about civil litigation and
the size of the damage awards”, The American University Law Review, Vol. 40, pp. 805-20.
Ho, T. (2005), “Do racial minority applicants have a better chance to be recruited in
predominantly white neighborhoods? An empirical study”, Police Quarterly, Vol. 8 No. 4,
Hughes, T. (2001), “Police officers and civil liability: the ties that bind?”, Policing:
An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 24 No. 2, pp. 240-62.
Human Rights Watch (1998), Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the
United States, Human Rights Watch, New York, NY.
Kappeler, V.E., Kappeler, S.F. and del Carmen, R.V. (1993), “A content analysis of police civil
liability cases: decisions of the federal district courts, 1978-1990”, Journal of Criminal
Justice, Vol. 21, pp. 325-37.
Kappeler, V.K. (2001), Critical Issues in Police Civil Liability, 3rd ed., Waveland Press, Prospect
Lawrence, R. (2000), The Politics of Force: Media and the Construction of Police Brutality,
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Lersch, K.M. and Feagin, J.R. (1996), “Violent police-citizen encounters: an analysis of major Download full-text
newspaper accounts”, Critical Sociology, Vol. 22 No. 2, pp. 29-49.
Lonsway, K.A. (2003), “Tearing down the wall: problems with consistency, validity, and adverse
impact of physical agility testing in police selection”, Police Quarterly, Vol. 6 No. 3,
MacManus, S.A. (1997), “Litigation costs, budget impacts, and cost containment strategies:
evidence from California cities”, Public Budgeting and Finance, Vol. 17 No. 4, pp. 28-47.
McCoy, C. (1987), “Legal liability: not a crisis”, Crime Control Digest, Vol. 21, p. 1.
Meadows, R.J. and Trostle, L.C. (1998), “A study of police misconduct and litigation: findings and
implications”, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 4, pp. 77-92.
Novak, K.J., Smith, B.W. and Frank, J. (2003), “Strange bedfellows: civil liability and aggressive
policing”, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 26
No. 2, pp. 352-68.
Robbennolt, J.K. and Studebaker, C.A. (2003), “News media reporting on civil litigation and its
influence on civil justice decision making”, Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 27 No. 1,
Schroedel, J.R., Frisch, S., Hallamore, N., Peterson, J. and Vanderhorst, N. (1996), “The joint
impact of race and gender on police department employment practices”, Women and
Criminal Justice, Vol. 8 No. 2, pp. 59-77.
Scogin, F. and Brodsky, S.L. (1991), “Fear of litigation among law enforcement officers”,
American Journal of Police, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 41-7.
Slonaker, W.M., Wendt, A.C. and Kemper, M.J. (2001), “Discrimination in the ranks: an empirical
study with recommendations”, Police Quarterly, Vol. 4 No. 3, pp. 289-317.
Vaughn, M.S., Cooper, T.W. and del Carmen, R.V. (2001), “Assessing legal liabilities in law
enforcement: police chiefs’ views”, Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 3-27.
Walker, S. (2005), The New World of Police Accountability, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, CA.
Walker, S. and Fridell, L. (1992), “Forces of change in police policy: the impact of Tennessee v.
Garner”, American Journal of Police, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 97-112.
Walker, S., Alpert, G.P. and Kenney, D.J. (2001), Early Warning Systems: Responding to the
Problem Police Officer, National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC.
Worrall, J.L. (1998), “Administrative determinants of civil liability lawsuits against municipal
police departments: an exploratory analysis”, Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 44 No. 2,
Worrall, J.L. and Gutierrez, R.S. (1999), “Professional notes – potential consequences of
community-oriented policing for civil liability: is there a dark side to employee
empowerment?”, Review of Public Personnel Administration, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 61-70.
Archbold, C.A. and Maguire, E. (2002), “Studying civil suits against the police: a serendipitous
finding of sample selection bias”, Police Quarterly, Vol. 5 No. 2, pp. 222-49.
Carol A. Archbold can be contacted at@ firstname.lastname@example.org
To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: email@example.com
Or visit our web site for further details: www.emeraldinsight.com/reprints