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Liability Insurance Could Hold 'Reckless' Police Officers Accountable

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

One of the core demands of protesters over the past two weeks has been to hold police accountable for their actions. Law professor Deborah Ramirez of Northeastern University in Boston says you could do that by making personal liability insurance mandatory for police officers. Ramirez wrote a paper recently where she argues liability insurance for officers would work just as it does for drivers.

DEBORAH RAMIREZ: If you were were a reckless driver, if you engaged in multiple instances of drunk driving or hitting civilians or motor vehicle homicides, your premiums would go sky high. And you would be priced out of driving. Similarly, officers who engage in reckless or dangerous behavior can be priced out of policing by high premiums that reflect the actual risk that they pose to us. And the police department is going to begin by paying the average base premium. But each officer is going to be required to pay anything above that that's based on their individual behavior.

MCCAMMON: So break this down for me. How would insurance companies decide these premiums? Would they be looking at past complaints filed against officers? I mean, often complaints are settled or they don't result in an officer being convicted of anything. So how would insurers handle that?

RAMIREZ: We have to look at what I call early warning indicators. The best prediction of reckless, dangerous policing is past dangerous policing. And so they can look at things like whether lawsuits have been filed. And have those suits been settled or has a judgment been entered? They can look at driving under the influence convictions. They can look at domestic violence restraining orders or any criminal conviction. Those are early warning indicators that the insurance companies can use to begin to intervene early and say to the officer, this is a problem. And it's a problem that indicates risky police behavior in the future. Can you begin to be involved in training to remediate or are your premiums going to continue to go up?

MCCAMMON: I can imagine some pushback along the lines of police officers are public sector employees. They're supposed to be public servants. I could imagine people saying private insurance companies should not be involved in dictating how they do their jobs. What would you say to that?

RAMIREZ: Well, they're not telling them how to do their jobs. They're assessing premiums based on a risk algorithm. And I would say this. If I thought the current system of discipline worked, we wouldn't need this, but it's broken. And so we need some independent risk assessment here. Because they are public officers, because they do carry a badge and a gun, they should be subject to some risk assessment score card. And if the police won't create it - because it's very hard for the police to police themselves - then insurance companies can, and they do that in a number of contexts. They do it for medical professionals. They do it for legal professionals. They do it for hairdressers and barbers. A lot of them carry professional liability insurance and this is no different.

MCCAMMON: The idea of making this sort of insurance mandatory for individual police officers isn't new. It has been proposed in several places, including Minnesota, where George Floyd was killed in police custody. Why hasn't this become a reality?

RAMIREZ: It hasn't become a reality because we have very politically powerful unions for whom this is something they care about a lot. They want to be totally immunized from any responsibility - financial or job responsibility - for dangerous, reckless policing. And they've been politically powerful enough to get it from the legislatures because without the state legislatures, they can't have this system. The reason it's never been enacted is because the unions don't want it. But the moment is different now. The political calculus has changed. This is a moment when real reform can take place.

MCCAMMON: Deborah Ramirez is a law professor at Northeastern University and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Boston. Professor Ramirez, thanks so much for speaking with us.

RAMIREZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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