About two and a half years ago, Chicago attorney Antonio Romanucci took note of a pattern in the news: national media outlets seemed to be covering more cases of alleged police misconduct.
It was 2013, and the cases were as shocking as they are today. A Miami teenager was killed by a Taser after police found him tagging an abandoned McDonald’s building. Three high school teens in Rochester, NY were arrested on a street corner for “obstruction” of a sidewalk while they waited for a school bus to take them to a basketball game. A man was given multiple enemas and forced to undergo a colonoscopy in a hospital after refusing to allow police to search his anus for drugs during a routine traffic stop. No drugs were ever found.
“So I thought: ‘Why not put together a group of lawyers who practice in this area?'” said Romanucci, who had long worked on police misconduct cases. "We can network and collaborate and strengthen the cases that we have against the municipalities and police departments where the police misconduct occurs.”
Shortly after, he founded a working group within the National Bar Association, the nation’s largest association of mostly black lawyers and judges, with a focus on police misconduct cases. The group will celebrate its second anniversary this month, at a time when more lawyers are being drawn to a field where there's justice to be served, money to be made, and unfortunately, plenty of work.
“We have probably close to 80 members already, and that number keeps growing,” said Romanucci. “I actually have five applications to join us sitting on my desk right now.”
As far as business decisions go, the numbers were ripe for lawyers to start paying more attention to the field. Over the last ten years, Chicago has paid out over half a billion dollars in police misconduct settlements. New York City almost matched that amount between 2009 and 2014 alone. As a whole, the ten cities with the largest police departments paid out a total of $1.02 billion in police-misconduct cases over the last five years, according to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal.
“That’s $300 million in legal fees. And the police are feeding you new cases every day,” an attorney speaking at the National Bar Association’s annual conference told attendees in July, citing similar settlement numbers. “So it’s a great avenue to make money.”
Potential windfalls vary. In Maryland, for example, there’s a $200,000 cap on the money a municipality can pay out in these cases, barring certain exceptions. As a result, even though “over 100” people have won police-misconduct cases against the Baltimore police department over the last few years, the Baltimore Sun reported that only $5.7 million had been paid out to the victims of those cases.
In contrast, New York City reached a $5.9 million settlement with the the estate of Eric Garner in July, totaling more than all the Baltimore cases combined between 2011 and late 2014. In Chicago earlier this year, the city agreed to a $5 million settlement for the death of LaQuan McDonald, a teenager who died after being shot by an officer a total of 16 times. In Los Angeles, the city recently paid a $5 million settlement to the family of a veteran who was shot and killed by an officer on live television, following a car chase.
All of the specific incidents mentioned above were caught on video — a factor that contributes to more lawyers looking at police-involved cases, Romanucci said.
“Those videos then get turned over to the media, which then publicizes them,” he said. “So as a result, with video evidence you have a much bigger chance at either proving or disproving a case of police misconduct.”
It also means attorneys are increasingly able to “weed out the bad cases” and spend more time with the ones that legitimately deserve justice.
The rise in civilian recordings of police interactions "will cause many more cases to settle earlier," he said, but it will also "disprove many people’s cases when they come in and say they were a victim of something, and the video doesn’t line up with their story.”
Yet even with video evidence, which might make a case look cut and dry to the casual observer, the cases are not slam dunks. They still take a lot of work, Romanucci stressed, adding that some of the personal injury attorneys entering into the field aren’t used to the heavy casework of civil rights law.
“I’ve taken as many as 60 depositions for one case — you’re talking about 60 separate interviews,” he said.
“It’s a more specialized field than just your normal personal injury law, because you’re dealing with violations to the constitution, and these cases tend to be in federal court,” Dallas-area attorney Daryl Washington, who also specializes in police misconduct cases, told Fusion. “They’re very detailed cases.”
An additional burden in bringing these cases to court, Washington added, was the close relationship that many district attorneys have with the police departments they are sometimes charged with investigating. “Think about it: In the vast majority of cases, the district attorney’s primary witness is a police officer,” he said. “It would truly help out the process if you had an independent investigator and a special prosecutor to handle these cases.”
Lawyers aren't the only ones calling for states to appoint special prosecutors in cases where police have been involved in the death of a civilian. Activists have done so, too. In July, thanks in part to those demands, New York became the first state to do appoint one.
Doing good attracts many people into the field, group founder Romanucci said, as well the potential for a good payday at the end of a successful case. Many of these cases' lawyers' fees are paid by the municipalities after a victory, he clarified, and many of them are also based on the contingency method, where an attorney is paid by the funds received only if the money is won.
“The profession is reacting very, very cautiously to the growing attention [to cases of police misconduct], but also with a very open eye,” he said.
“Because at the end of the day if you’re doing this work, you want to do the right thing, and you want to help make our laws a little better,” he said.
And the money doesn’t hurt, either.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.