ST. LOUIS — The $1.5 million awarded last week to the parents of Michael Brown is the latest of several large settlements involving killings of black people by police, but it’s far from the largest.
A federal judge in St. Louis on Tuesday approved the settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Michael Brown Sr. and Lezley McSpadden. Their 18-year-old son was unarmed on Aug. 9, 2014, when he was fatally shot by white officer Darren Wilson during a street confrontation in Ferguson, Missouri.
The shooting launched months of protests and led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found racial bias in Ferguson’s police and court system. But a St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department declined to prosecute Wilson, who resigned in November 2014.
Brown’s parents sued the city, former Police Chief Tom Jackson and Wilson in 2015, citing a police culture hostile to black residents and claiming Wilson used excessive force. Ferguson, Jackson and Wilson denied the allegations.
The case is among many in which settlements have been reached out of court, including many in which officers, like Wilson, were cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber did not release the amount of the settlement, citing unspecified safety concerns. But Ferguson City Attorney Apollo Carey said in an email Friday in response to an open records request from The Associated Press that the city’s insurance company paid out $1.5 million.
While settlements are expensive, cities facing lawsuits in wrongful death cases are aware of the danger of going to trial, said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University School of Law.
He said the settlement amount could be dwarfed by an award granted by a jury sympathetic to the family.
“The city is afraid that someone on that jury is a member of Black Lives Matter, even if the juror is Caucasian,” Cohen said.
Settlements in some other recent high-profile cases have been much higher than the amount awarded to Brown’s parents.
In 2015, the city of North Charleston, South Carolina, paid $6.5 million to the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was killed by a white police officer while running from a traffic stop. The officer, Michael T. Slager, pleaded guilty in May to a civil rights violation.
A month earlier, Baltimore paid $6.4 million to the family of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury in police custody. No officers were convicted.
New York City reached a $5.9 million settlement in July 2015 with the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being put in a chokehold by a white police officer. The officer was cleared by a grand jury.
Cleveland agreed to pay $6 million last year to the family of Tamir Rice. The 12-year-old had an airsoft gun that shoots nonlethal plastic pellets when a white officer shot him in 2014. A grand jury did not charge the officer.
Also last year, Pleasantville, New York, paid $6 million to the family of Danroy Henry Jr., a 20-year-old black college student shot to death by a white officer in 2010. No charges were filed against the officer.
Some award amounts this year have been lower. Madison, Wisconsin, agreed to pay $3.35 million to relatives of 19-year-old Tony Robinson Jr., who was unarmed when he was fatally shot. Milwaukee reached a $2.3 million tentative settlement with the family of Dontre Hamilton, a man with schizophrenia who was shot by police. Arlington, Texas, reached an $850,000 settlement with the family of 19-year-old Christian Taylor, who was shot by an officer while allegedly vandalizing cars at a dealership. Police were not charged in any of those cases.
Peter Joy, a professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said the evidence of a case is a big factor in determining the settlement amount. While some of the other cases had video evidence, there was no video of the confrontation between Brown and Wilson in Ferguson — a potential factor in the lower payment.
Cohen said the allegations against Brown may have reduced leverage for his attorneys. Brown was accused of stealing from a store on the same day he died, and he was accused of reaching into Wilson’s police vehicle and attacking him, leading up to the shooting.
“You can see the story the defense attorney would tell at trial,” Cohen said.
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