Legal Liability: Adding Up The Costs

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – A 10 On Your Side investigation uncovers how much taxpayer money has been spent to settle cases when citizens sue over police actions.

One case in Portsmouth drew our attention to this topic. We obtained new information in the 2010 deadly officer-involved shooting.

For the first time on television, we heard from Lucille Fleming. Her brother, 68-year-old David Warren, was killed inside his home on Weaver Circle.

Police said Warren barricaded himself inside the home and threatened officers.

Fleming filed a $55 million lawsuit against the police department and former Chief Ed Hargis, claiming they were negligent in the death of a man with mental illness.

The case is still moving through the courts and your tax dollars could be used to settle it.

Fleming is suing a city that has well documented budget problems and has already paid out more than $1 million in settlements in the last few years.

From a distance you could hear the shots that day. There were 17 in all.

With guns drawn, shields for protection and a sniper on a roof, neighbors watched the scene unfold on Portsmouth’s Weaver Circle June 30, 2010.

Fleming first saw the commotion on television, not knowing her brother was involved.

“What could have happened?” she wondered. “I just want to know what’s going on here. Why?”

The scene was the culmination of what started as a dispute over mowing a lawn.

10 On Your Side learned that’s a common city practice for properties with unkempt yards — occupied or not.

Warren was inside, even though his house was boarded up, with no electricity or water. He twice told city crews to stop cutting the grass and leave the property.

The crew did stop, but contacted a city inspector who then called police.

Police described what happened that day in an interview not long after the incident.

“Mr. Warren was armed with what appeared to be a rifle. He raised the rifle and aimed directly at officers who were at the door. At that point one of the tactical officers yelled gun and three officers fired,” Portsmouth Police Captain Garrett Shelton said in 2010.

Eleven bullets hit David Warren. The Air Force veteran and Purple Heart recipient, a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, lay dead in his home.

In 2010, police said no family showed up at the scene.

Fleming says she was blocked from getting there.

“I was told where to park and to wait,” she said.

Police said they found two weapons inside near Warren’s body — a 30 caliber rifle and an air gun — but they admit, he never fired a shot.

According to a letter dated two years after the shooting from the then-Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney, the three officers who fired their guns were “…justified in their response to the imminent threat…” and didn’t face criminal charges.

Because they weren’t charged, WAVY News is not naming them.

Fleming told 10 On Your Side’s Brandi Cummings why she filed the lawsuit.

“I’m just hoping it doesn’t happen ever again,” she said.

Her case is just one of dozens filed.

10 On Your Side spent weeks combing through data obtained through an open records request from each of the seven cities. We found that since 2014, there were a total of 126 lawsuits filed against the police departments.

Read: Lawsuits filed against Hampton Roads police departments

“I don’t think this shows a particularly unusual pattern here in Hampton Roads. Unfortunately, we have a lot of lawsuits and even more unfortunately, some of them are really valid,” William & Mary Law School Professor Adam Gershowitz said after reviewing the data.

Professor Gershowitz told Cummings that successfully suing a police department is difficult, because officers are protected from lawsuits by what’s called qualified immunity. That means if an officer is acting reasonably, he or she may not be held responsible.

“If police were afraid of being sued for every little thing, they’d be afraid to do their job and they wouldn’t aggressively police for us to protect the community,” Professor Gershowitz said. “On the downside though, if we give police really broad immunity, it’s not going to deter them from engaging in misconduct.”

Gershowitz said the system is set up to protect officers.

“So are the police really sort of afraid of lawsuits? Probably not in most cases, because they’re unlikely to be sued successfully and even at the rare case that they are, they’re not usually paying for it.”

A closer look at the numbers reveal how much of your tax dollars have been spent by cities to settle lawsuits.

While 36 were dismissed, 24 cases have been settled since 2014.

In Virginia Beach, $498,208.68 has been paid out.

In Portsmouth, more than $1.3 million has been paid out since 2014.

In Newport News, more than $2 million.

The largest amount of your tax dollars was paid out in Norfolk: More than $2.4 million.

Our data shows there are still 48 local cases pending. In the documents provided, the City of Virginia Beach included 18 additional cases.

If they are settled or a plaintiff wins the case, these lawsuits could cost you even more money.

Professor Gershowitz said there are many great officers and you will never get rid of all lawsuits, but he believes there are ways police departments across the country can reduce the number of lawsuits.

“If you hire good people and train them correctly, you are likely to have fewer incidents of police brutality,” he said.

While no lawsuit will or amount of money will bring her brother back, Lucille Fleming explained she filed to send a clear message.

“I really want the City of Portsmouth, the police department, the SWAT team to hear the cries of those who can no longer speak,” she said.

Fleming’s lawsuit was recently dismissed, but she’s appealing to the state’s high court asking them to agree that the case should be heard before a jury.

The case is far from over.

Stay with WAVY.com for updates.

Additional Documents:

Hampton Police Complaints Report

Norfolk Police Complaints Report