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Dec. 6, 2022

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Wrongful death suits against cities are evolving. After a landmark $4M settlement, will Spokane police policy change?

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SPOKANE — The call came on a cold Monday night. A frightened man told police dispatchers that his neighbor was drunk, shouting racial slurs and had a gun.

Officers sped to the home at 623 W. Montgomery Ave., a simple house with a large front porch and gravel driveway in the Emerson Garfield neighborhood, a few blocks south of Corbin Park. Initial reports from police on Jan. 7, 2019, suggest they heard what was believed to be a gunshot as they rapidly converged.

Following a quick bark of commands that police say went unheeded, an officer shot and killed 35-year-old David Novak. But investigators didn’t find a gun. Instead, the banging noises heard that night were Novak striking his own pickup with a baseball bat.

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting, police were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office. But the city’s insurers did not want the jury in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Novak’s family to reach its own conclusion. The sides settled last week for what is believed to be a record $4 million.

The case underscores a changing legal landscape for police departments. Litigation is becoming more expensive and high-dollar settlements more common. Insurance companies on the hook to pay for the consequences of police violence could be the ones to set best practices for law enforcement, Spokane attorney Jeffry Finer said.

Departments with few legal problems have seen insurance rates rise 30% to 100%, according to a recent Washington Post story. At agencies with a long history of large settlements, rates have jumped 200% to 400%.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl defended the work of Officer Brandon Rankin in the Novak case and does not anticipate the settlement leading to changes in his department’s policies and procedures.

Meidl said the Spokane Police Department takes every use of lethal force seriously. The loss of life, he said, is tragic.

Other agencies in the area have paid out large settlements in recent years for wrongful death suits, including $1 million earlier this year paid by the county to the family of Ethan Murry, 25, who was shot and killed by a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy in 2019.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich strongly disagreed with the settlement and defended his deputies.

At the Spokane Police Department, Meidl said there has been some re-emphasized training on what he called “dispatch priming.” It reminds officers that dispatchers are just relaying what callers are telling them about requests for help, and that officers should use their other senses to evaluate the situation.

When responding to a reported active shooting, Meidl said, officers are trained to act quickly, with every second they delay meaning the potential for another victim. As officers rush to a scene, they’re running through checklists and logistical contingencies in their minds, hoping to stop the shooting, he said.

In the Novak case, with reports from both neighbors and other officers that Novak was firing a gun, Meidl said he believes Rankin acted appropriately in the moment, based on what he knew.

Meidl said he worries the community feels that large settlements mean officers acted egregiously or that the shooting was “completely unwarranted,” which he feels isn’t the case.

“All of these cases are unique,” Meidl said, adding that settlements may be made by third parties — such as insurers — for myriad reasons.

“We don’t want our community feeling like our officers are making reckless decisions,” Meidl said. “We want, we need our community to trust us. In order for them to do that, we need them to look at all of these incidents and do a deeper analysis of the information and then formulate their opinion, not just based on what the settlement is.”

Sometimes, wrongful death claims are dismissed by a judge. In cases like the Novak lawsuit, there’s enough evidence to reach a settlement or let a jury decide.

“Court is for cases that can’t be settled,” Finer said.

In recent years, legal and societal changes have increased the cost and types of civil litigation against law enforcement agencies. It’s not just wrongful death claims, but all kinds of alleged misconduct, Finer said.

“Juries are awarding larger sums,” Finer said. “Settlements are getting higher.”

Large cities spend millions of dollars a year settling police misconduct claims, according to The Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight. During the past 10 years, for example, New York City spent an average of about $170 million a year on settlements.

Officers with repeated misconduct claims cost agencies nationwide more than $1.5 billion over the past decade, a Washington Post Investigation revealed earlier this year.

One factor is the increase in suits of merit, Finer said. The public has more information about police conduct due to body cameras, home security systems and bystanders filming with cellphones, he said.

In the past, an officer’s word that they were in fear for their lives was often all juries had to go on, Finer said.

With an increase in well-done cases, settlements are becoming more frequent, either by choice or because their insurance companies require them, Finer said.

“I think jurors are savvier and have learned to expect protection and service,” Finer said of policing.

The push for police reform following nationwide racial equity protests in 2020 has also had a large effect on these suits.

With economics, changing juror attitudes and the mechanics of litigation, insurance companies are paying settlements more frequently.

“The insurance company can dictate a great deal of decisions made in the case,” Finer said. “The people who are sued may not have much say in whether the insurance companies pay out.”

It’s extremely rare for agencies to admit wrongdoing as part of a settlement outside court, Finer said.

When Finer hears agency leaders, like Meidl, continue to say their officers did nothing wrong, he said he thinks that can help some litigants’ cases.

“That attitude in part is why the insurance companies are having to up their rates for coverage,” Finer said. “I think it really damages the public perception and confidence in the police force.”

Often when it comes to police reform, insurance companies are the ones that force departments to conform with best practices if they want to remain insured, Finer said.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) can also review uses of force and revoke or suspend an officer’s certification if they’re found to have violated law or policy after an independent investigation, based on a new law then went into effect last year creating a process for the public to seek officer decertification.

Kurtis Robinson, a commissioner with CJTC and well-known Spokane activist, said he looks for a pattern of misconduct or overuse of force when evaluating certification questions.

Robinson noted he doesn’t speak for the commission as a whole.

Historically, Robinson said, prosecutors have looked the other way, despite some officers having a pattern of egregious overuse of force. If the commission feels an officer shows potential to change, they can require remedial or increased training in certain areas for them to maintain their certification.

From a personal perspective, Robinson said he’s concerned with the “tremendous” cost of settlements like this both in Washington state and nationally.

Municipalities are “paying through the nose” for “these kinds of egregious things” happening in law enforcement, Robinson said.

“Not only is it costly, but the other side about that is, what we are doing is we are putting a number value on human life,” Robinson said. “That speaks to how far we have to go as a society.”

Robinson said he would like to see accountability beyond financial compensation. Until that happens, Robinson believes there will be more significant settlements paid out for similar cases in Spokane.

“Nobody is saying that law enforcement has an easy job,” Robinson said. “We are all acknowledging they have a very difficult, if not one of the most difficult jobs on the planet.

“Yet with that they have a higher responsibility to the populations that they are set up to serve. And with that higher responsibility must come a higher level of accountability.”

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