Could insurance bring an end to police violence?

City treasuries absorb the cost of lawsuits against police. If officers had to carry their own coverage, accountability would go way up — and violence would plummet.

Members of the California Highway Patrol stand guard on a freeway ramp during a protest against the police shootings that lead to two deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively, in Oakland, California, U.S. July 7, 2016. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Members of the California Highway Patrol stand guard on a freeway ramp during a protest against the police shootings that lead to two deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively, in Oakland, California, U.S. July 7, 2016. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

The escalating tension between Black people and the police sworn to protect and serve them has reached a tipping point. When Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown in 2014, a movement was violently birthed. In the two years since, the conversation on police violence has remained just that — a conversation. While calls for reform have fallen on the deaf ears of government, Black bodies continue to be obliterated under the guise of upholding the law. As of this writing, 136 Black people have been killed by police in 2016. We know the name of the most recent, Philando Castile, because we watched him die in front of his girlfriend and her daughter. According to the little that is known about Micah Xavier Johnson, the ambush shooter who killed five police officers and injured 11 in Dallas, the toxic relationship between Black people and police appears to have disfigured him into hatred by the time he picked up a weapon. After his body, and the bodies of the officers he killed are buried, this toxic relationship will remain.

The moral cowardice of politicians who refuse to pass reform laws has given tacit support as police have continued to profile, harass, intimidate, and kill Black people. In times past, institutional violence could be pushed back by appeals to humanity, and to the law. Segregation, for example, could not withstand the weight of the Constitution, and images of Black protesters being set upon by dogs shamed white people into renouncing the policy. Yet police violence against Black people survived the death of slavery, survived the death of segregation, and is thriving in the age of Twitter hashtags and panel discussions. How can Black men, women, and children resist this form of violence, when violence against them carries the weight of the law itself?

Legal means have failed to yield results. We have seen repeated failures in the justice system; charging a police officer with a crime is a rare thing, and convictions almost never happen. Lawsuits against officers and their departments have been successful, but the financial penalties to police departments have not moved them to change their practices. Neither have they been moved to root out officers with lengthy histories of violence. This is not a matter of revamped police training, or better relationships with Black communities. This is a matter of incentives.

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Since 2000, the city of Toronto has paid $27 million for settlements against the Toronto Police Service. In 2013 alone, the city of Chicago paid more than $81.3 million in fees, settlements, and awards to cover lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department. That pales next to New York City’s 2015 figure of $735 million, which is expected to rise in 2016. In other words, police aren’t refusing to change their practices because those practices work; they aren’t changing them because all of us—Black, white, and everyone else—cover the bill.*

In smaller municipalities, where a multi-million-dollar lawsuit can severely disrupt the local economy, liability insurers have succeeded where others have failed. In Irwindale, Calif., the local police department was forced to implement a “performance improvement plan” to manage the risk their officers brought to the city’s insurer. In Niota, Tenn., two police officers who beat a man during a traffic stop were fired after the municipal insurer threatened to cancel its policy.

In larger cities, lawsuits against police often barely register a blip within multi-billion-dollar budgets. In these cases, the risk is spread among taxpayers, rather than concentrated into the departments, or the officers themselves. Activists in Minneapolis have proposed that officers be required to carry their own liability coverage before putting on the badge. This solution is not only sensible, it’s already standard practice for most professions.

Full disclosure: I work in the corporate office of an insurance company, though not the type that can offer this kind of coverage. My professional standard requires me to have $5 million in liability coverage. Any doctor, lawyer, electrician, or plumber must have their own coverage before they hang their shingle. Yet a police officer can assault a suspect, botch an interrogation, or kill another human being with a vanishingly small prospect of being held accountable. Their insurance is the city treasury.

By continuing to indemnify police, we have locked ourselves into a cycle of grief, despair, and violence. This has to end somewhere, and despite the lies and outrage sure to follow this horrifying week, it will not end through waging war on civilians and communities. We have at least one proven solution to the problem of police violence against Black people. The only question left is whether we would rather watch more people die than use it.

Andray Domise is a Toronto writer, activist and co-founder of txdl.ca, a mentorship and development program.


* Correction: A previous version of this post suggested that in 2013, the city of Chicago paid more than $54 million in fees, settlements, and awards to cover lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department. In fact, the number was higher—more than $81.3 million.


Could insurance bring an end to police violence?

  1. In Canada, police interactions with the public are not so tense as very few
    citizens own guns. With so many people carrying firearms in the USA, there
    is a much greater threat for police when they interact with the public. This is just a
    fact of life in the gun obsessed culture of America. Best to just follow police
    orders, be calm and pleasant, and don’t make suspicious movements that
    increase the odds of being shot by police in self-defense.

    • Many Canadians own guns. The difference is Canadians use guns for hunting , target shooting and as collectors. We don,t personally carry guns in public. We have a safe gun ownership community.We are licenced and to get a licence you must take authorized courses. We are the model of the world. Do you want to know what the problem is in this world today? When I was growing up we had the discipline of the home the school and the church. We had the Ten Commandments , God was in our lives and we didn,t kill unborn babies. Also one parent worked while the other looked after the children and the house. For the uninformed that’s what Mr. Harper and the Cons were trying to get Canada back to by reducing personal taxes so one parent can stay home.

      • For the uninformed, Harper was solely interested in securing votes from the evangelical Christian block. As in all things, he would do whatever he thought necessary to get his way.

      • Well your remarks on guns are true. The rest is hogwash.

        And the 50s aren’t coming back

  2. What an ingenious, off the wall, way of looking at the issue. Money does talk. Now given that the police work for the city and the city self insurers the police…….why does the city not crack down and force the police force to dismiss troublesome officers…..if only because of the bottom line? To heck with union protections.

  3. Interesting idea … maybe. Yes, police officers need to have their own insurance. I also think that graduated monetary fines against officers to curtail and end violent acts that they might be tempted to make might work, as a disincentive. This fining method could be based on legit filed complaint system, but not brought before courts unless aggravated, like a ticketing system for drivers. This would give victims of police harassment, profiling and brutality a voice and would weed out the bad seeds before this escalated into open racial warfare and prevent people from dying by monitoring cops at risk for perpetrating any kind of violence or inciting racism. On the positive side they could as a result of this monitoring system be educated to become more socially and psychologically aware or on the negative side they could simply be fired for misconduct. What do you think is this a possible way to curb racism? What do others think? Is it too much of a Fabian socialist idea in concept, application or desired outcome?

  4. Why is something so silly being presented in Maclean’s magazine?

    Domise proposes insurance as a solution to ending police violence. Coincidentally, he makes his living selling insurance.
    More specifically, he proposes that each police officer carry their own insurance, as compared to being covered under the police department budget which is funded by city taxes.
    Domise offers himself as an example of a trades person who carries his own liability insurance. But overlooks the fact that his cost for carrying that insurance is simply passed on to his clients. His fees are set to take into account his cost of doing business.
    The same would happen in the case of a police officer. The officer would have to demand a salary that covered the cost of carrying insurance. His “clients” would be the city, the taxpayers.
    The city would be paying for every officers insurance policiy.
    Just as they do now.

    So what changes?
    The onus of liability remains the same as it is now.

    Which is why it strikes me as odd that this proposal was given any consideration to actually appear under the banner of Maclean’s, as if it had some value or import, when it serves no purpose at all.

    Except maybe that because Domise is black it makes Maclean’s feel they are helping give voice to a racial minority. But why choose such a silly voice?
    Are there no other black articulate writers in Toronto, in Canada? Is Domise the best Maclean’s can come up with?

    • – The author assumes that there is a rational insurance underwriter somewhere in Canada who would issue a liability policy to an individual who uses force – sometimes lethal force – for a living. Not a group policy, where the basic principle of insurance (“law of large numbers”) might be able to operate … but a policy for an individual cop. This is so naive that it’s pure comedy. My fellow underwriters are snorting and chuckling at the notion.

      – Even if I could get an underwriter drunk enough to issue such a policy, he/she would charge so big a premium that only a multi-millionaire could afford it. I’m talking a six-figure premium. For one year. For one cop.

      – The author’s primary occupation, as an “activist” and agitator, should rule him out as an author. As an interview subject, perhaps. Someone whose statements can be checked and “cross-examined”, and even ridiculed, perhaps. But as an author? That’s absurd, irrational and irrespondible. Shame on Maclean’s for that.

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