Boston paid $36m to settle police lawsuits
Largest payouts over decade were for deaths, wrongful convictions
The City of Boston has spent more than $36 million to resolve 2,000 legal claims and lawsuits against the Boston Police Department over the past decade, with most of the money going for cases alleging wrongful convictions or police misconduct.
The bulk of the payouts, $31 million, went for 22 cases worth $100,000 or more, including nine awards for well over $1 million apiece, according to data provided by the mayor’s office in response to a public records request filed by the Globe.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh told reporters Thursday that many of the city’s settlements predated his administration, so he couldn’t speak in detail about the volume or nature of the cases. “Unfortunately, sometimes settlements have to happen,” he said, noting that every case is handled differently. “Oftentimes, it is a better, cheaper way to settle out of court than go to court with it.”
Boston civil rights lawyer Howard Friedman, who handled some of the largest settlements in which those involved contended that they were wrongfully convicted of crimes, said the payouts could have resulted in even larger verdicts had the city not agreed to settle.
Others involved people who were killed at the hands of officers or suffered permanent injuries.
“Settling was smart for the city,” Friedman said. “These are just terrible cases.”
He also said he didn’t think the amount of money was out of line with what other major cities have spent around the country to resolve similar cases against police departments.
Chicago, which is four times larger than Boston, paid out more than a half-billion dollars to resolve police brutality cases over the last decade, according to a Chicago Sun-Times story last year.
And a roundup by the Washington Post found a number of other cities spent millions of dollars a year to settle police lawsuits.
Some of the biggest payouts in Boston went to the families of victims who died after encounters with police during celebrations of major sports victories in Boston over the years.
In one high-profile case, Boston paid $5 million to the family of Victoria Snelgrove after the 21-year-old college student died when police fired pepper-pellet guns into a crowd reveling in the Red Sox pennant victory in 2004 outside Fenway Park.
Snelgrove was hit in the eye by one of the projectiles as police tried to disperse the revelers.
And Boston agreed to a $3 million settlement in 2010 after another college student, David Woodman, stopped breathing and later died when he was arrested for public drinking after the 2008 Celtics championship, according to the records and Globe reports.
An independent inquiry determined the death was caused not by police, but by a preexisting heart condition.
Other large payouts went to people who suffered serious, life-changing injuries.
In 2012, the city agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a suit by a corrections officer, Michael P. O’Brien, who said a Boston police officer placed him in a choke hold during a 2009 arrest, leaving him with brain damage and unable to work, the Globe reported at the time.
In addition, the city settled five wrongful conviction cases for $3 million or more since 2004.
Among the five plaintiffs was Ulysses Rodriguez Charles, who spent 18 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of raping three women in Brighton in 1980, settled a federal suit for $3.25 million in 2009.
His convictions were overturned when DNA evidence raised questions about his guilt.
“At the outset, there was more than enough evidence to lead any reasonable prosecutor to realize they had the wrong person,” said Frank C. Corso, who represented Charles in the lawsuit.
And James A. Haley, who spent 34 years behind bars, received $3 million in 2013.
Haley was arrested and charged with breaking into the Dorchester apartment of his sister-in-law on July 11, 1971, and fatally stabbing and shooting her boyfriend, David Myers, 25.
But after filing a public records request in 2006, Haley learned that police interviews had not been shared with his attorney.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley filed a motion in 2007 to vacate the conviction, and the conviction was later dismissed by Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle.
Also, Anthony Powell, who spent 12 years in Massachusetts prison for a rape he insisted he did not commit, received $3.8 million in 2008.
Powell was convicted in 1992 after an 18-year-old victim said she was positive that Powell was the man who raped her. But years later, prosecutors agreed to check Powell’s DNA and found it did not match the attacker’s.
“Nothing can return those years to him,” Conley said in 2011. “No amount of compensation that he may have received is going to make this right.’’
In another case, the city paid $3.2 million to Stephan Cowans, who was wrongfully convicted in the 1997 shooting of a Boston police officer in Roxbury.
Cowans was freed in 2004 after the New England Innocence Project urged investigators to test DNA evidence from the crime scene, and authorities found it didn’t match Cowans.
Officials also found that the fingerprint evidence initially used to convict Cowans didn’t match either.
A year after receiving the payment from the city, Cowans was fatally shot in October 2007 in his Randolph home.
Some other lawsuits were brought by employees who claimed they were wrongly fired or otherwise mistreated.
William Broderick, a former police captain, asserted he was terminated after he uncovered wide-ranging overtime abuses in the department. He later was awarded $2.8 million after a jury found in his favor.
Friedman said he believes Boston is trying to learn from past mistakes. But J. Larry Mayes, one of the newest members to the Boston Police Department’s citizen oversight panel, said it’s probably impossible to completely avoid major lawsuits and settlements in a major city like Boston.
“When you’re talking about a city of this size I think it’s reasonable to assume mistakes would be made,” said Mayes, a longtime member of former mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration and a vice president of programs for Catholic Charities. “You don’t want them to.”