Martin Tankleff, John Restivo, Dennis Halstead and Keith Bush — all of whom got multimillion-dollar payments for wrongful convictions — are among those who have received settlements for police or prosecutorial misconduct. Newsday’s Thomas Maier reports. Credit: Randee Daddona; File Footage

Long Island taxpayers have paid more than $165 million since 2000 to end lawsuits that alleged police and prosecutorial misconduct, including excessive force, false imprisonment and wrongful death, a Newsday investigation has found. 

The number of lawsuits with large-scale payouts for claims of law-enforcement wrongdoing has increased from 2011 to this year.

“There is a cost to this corruption,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said. “There’s a ‘corruption tax’ that, unfortunately, taxpayers are forced to pay. If you look at what has happened here, we’re talking about something that goes back decades.”

Defense lawyers said many lawsuits for alleged law-enforcement wrongdoing can take years to decide — some more than a decade if they go to trial rather than settle. The current system, they said, adds unnecessary taxpayer expense, furthers the injustice to those victimized by illegal actions by law enforcement and indicates more oversight of police is needed.

Newsday's investigation reviewed court records and used the state’s public records law to obtain documents as part of its recent two-year "Policing on LI" series. The investigation uncovered 75 lawsuit settlements and jury verdicts between 2000 and January 2023 showing how much money local governments paid to settle lawsuits alleging police misconduct. 

Earlier this month, on May 2, a federal jury found Suffolk County liable for $750,000 in damages for malicious prosecution of Michael McDevitt, 61, of Deer Park, who claimed police beat him during a 2014 arrest. The jury also found the case was part of a pattern of misconduct.

“The cost of police when there are wrongful actions done, that is an enormous number of dollars that lie below the surface,” said Frederick Brewington, an attorney who has won several large settlements and trial jury awards. He said the Newsday survey of more than $165 million in penalties doesn’t include related costs. “We don’t talk about the impact of that on the long term — attorneys' fees, court costs, expert costs.”

One of the costliest years for taxpayers was 2018.

Nassau County settled a lawsuit filed by Darryl Coggins for nearly $1 million. Coggins accused police of falsely arresting him on gun charges even though, he said, they knew he was innocent. Coggins spent two days in jail before charges were eventually dropped, court records and Brewington said.

That same year, Suffolk County lawmakers paid Martin Tankleff $10 million — atop $3.4 million already from state compensation funding — after he spent 17 years in prison on charges that he murdered his parents. A state appellate court overturned Tankleff's conviction in 2007. Suffolk prosecutors dismissed murder charges.  

Tankleff’s journey through the justice system took years to resolve. 

“There was no amount of money that anyone could give me that could give me my life back,” Tankleff said recently. “It shouldn’t take 10 years. In a lot of cases, especially mine, everybody knew what the facts were.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, also in 2018, upheld a $43 million jury award to John Restivo and Dennis Halstead, who each spent 18 years in prison for a Nassau murder that DNA tests later proved they didn’t commit. Along with $2.2 million each already from state funding, their total of $47 million was one of the biggest payouts of its kind in the country, according to court records.

John Kogut also spent 18 years in prison for the crime before being released. A federal judge dismissed Kogut's civil rights claims against Nassau County and an appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling in 2015.

Nassau officials “fought tooth and nail” against the lawsuit, despite ample evidence of innocence offered by the two men, said Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann, attorney for Restivo and Halstead.

“When you get DNA evidence that excluded them and more information is coming out, it’s hard to defend fighting and trying to draw things out and not conceding innocence when I think innocence was pretty clear,” she said.

Hoffmann said Long Island is known as a place where taxpayers are willing to pay a lot for police protection with little oversight, leading to costly lawsuits.

“Unfortunately, this is a problem not just in Nassau and Suffolk counties but also in a lot of places in the United States where there is a lack of accountability for police officers,” Hoffmann said. “There’s just not a systemic accountability. If anything, the culture often is the opposite. The culture is the blue wall of silence where we cover up for each other.”

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, who took office in January 2022, said he was surprised to learn the extent and cost of big-ticket lawsuits faced by the county because of alleged wrongdoing by law enforcement.

“We have had anomalies — those that have strayed — and we paid a big price for it,” Blakeman said about police accused of misconduct in expensive lawsuits. “Some of it is frivolous and we’re going to defend [the county] to the hilt. But sometimes an argument is being made by a plaintiff, and in appropriate circumstances we may be wrong. And if we are wrong, we should try to lessen our damages and settle cases that are capable of being settled.”

Adam Barsky, chair of the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, said a huge court penalty for alleged claims of law-enforcement wrongdoing can be a budget buster, throwing the county into a deficit. Currently, the county has reported a budget surplus, thanks to higher sales tax revenue and COVID-related federal funding. But in the past, this state-appointed budget watchdog panel has battled with Nassau officials who wanted to issue long-term bonds to pay for these costly penalties, rather than face the immediate budgetary impact.

“A significant judgment is very difficult for a county, especially a county like Nassau that has had a lot of fiscal stress in the past,” Barsky said. “There’s been a real pushback to make sure that good cops are protected, but bad cops are penalized appropriately … I think you’re seeing a sea change not only in Nassau County, but you’re seeing it throughout the country.” 

A more recent big-ticket settlement resulted from the 2019 exoneration of Keith Bush, who spent 33 years in prison for a 1974 murder of a Bellport High School classmate. After a lengthy re-investigation by the Suffolk district attorney's Conviction Integrity Bureau confirmed Bush’s innocence, officials apologized to him publicly.

County officials decided to settle with Bush rather than run the fiscal risk of a jury trial award, where experts said successful lawsuits usually cost about $1 million for every year of wrongful imprisonment. 

As a result last year, Suffolk authorized a $16 million federal court settlement to go along with $5 million he already had received from the state Court of Claims for his wrongful conviction.

“It was never about the dollars,” Bush, then 64, said after his exhaustive legal battle that stretched for decades.

While still costly, Long Island municipalities are increasingly willing to settle lawsuits, rather than face higher possible payouts from trial juries. From 2000-10, there were five trial jury awards and eight settlements. But from 2011-23, it jumped to eight trials and 54 settlements and monetary awards.

 

Most of the lawsuits reviewed by Newsday involved Nassau’s and Suffolk’s county police departments — among the most handsomely paid in the nation — but others involved smaller forces run by local towns and villages. 

In 2020, for example, Hempstead Village officials agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit by Abel Antonio Alvarenga Vasquez, who claimed he suffered a disabling injury during arrest by police.

“We eventually did settle it, and I think it was in the county’s best interest — the taxpayers' best interest — that we did that because we alleviated a potential liability that could have been much greater,” Blakeman said about Nassau’s $2 million share of the settlement. “We also ended a lot of expense, not only in terms of internal resources, but also outside counsel.”

Not all payouts are huge, with more than half under $1 million for improper actions. Last year, for instance, a federal appeals court upheld a $150,000 award against Nassau for the false arrest of a man who spent one night in jail. And Suffolk forked over $50,000 in 2017 for improperly arresting a man taking video at a crime scene.

But others carry multimillion-dollar penalties for alleged wrongdoing in long-running cases. These payouts include the $7.7 million settlement in 2012 to the family of domestic violence murder victim Jo’Anna Bird because police failed to protect her.

Wary of a big payout from a potential jury trial, Blakeman in March 2022 helped negotiate an agreement with Suffolk officials to pay a total $3 million to Huntington Station cab driver Thomas Moroughan to settle. He alleged that he was shot without cause by an off-duty Nassau police officer during an alcohol-fueled road-rage incident. In court papers, Moroughan accused police of covering up the incident and sought as much as $30 million in damages. Nassau settled its share of the case for $2 million.

Besides costing taxpayers millions, and in some instances saddling local governments with long-term debt, the cost of police and prosecutorial wrongdoing highlights insufficient civilian oversight of law enforcement, experts said.

Frank Straub, a director of the National Policing Institute, a nonpartisan research group, said the $165 million Newsday uncovered reflects greater scrutiny of police actions in recent years. 

“Lawsuits against the police can be a form of oversight,” Straub said. “It does provide — especially when there is a trial — opportunities for disclosure of acts, which then create opportunities for reform. If police agencies or political leaders are taking these [allegations] seriously, what they shouldn’t be doing is simply settling a lawsuit — ‘Here’s X dollars, go away, we’re sorry this happened to you.’ But they should really use it as an important opportunity to figure out what went wrong.”

Straub said it’s important that government officials heed the lessons from these lawsuits and insist on better training and oversight by police, if needed.

“It becomes their obligation as elected representatives of the community to make sure the appropriate reforms are put into place, or safeguards put in place, to prevent similar acts in the future,” Straub said.

The escalating cost of law-enforcement lawsuits on Long Island comes amid increasing scrutiny of police and prosecutors both nationally and locally.

The suffocation murder of George Floyd during a May 2020 arrest in Minnesota prompted nationwide protests about police methods, especially toward racial minorities, and calls in New York State for reform and better oversight. Floyd’s family later received a $27 million settlement from a wrongful-death lawsuit. 

The Newsday survey of Long Island payouts appears to be following a national trend. At least $1.5 billion has been paid by U.S. municipalities to settle police misconduct lawsuits since 2010, according to The Washington Post and other news accounts.

In New York, the state Court of Claims provides money to people imprisoned who can show their innocence, usually through an exoneration or dismissal of criminal charges. These payouts are in addition to the money they may have received  from private lawsuits for damages and civil rights violations. Since 2012, the state has paid $195 million in 84 actions for unjust convictions, records show. All but one of the cases settled rather than were decided at jury trials. Long Island payouts from the state amount to $14.5 million, with the vast majority coming from New York City cases. 

The Legal Aid Society tracked a big boost last year in New York City payouts for police wrongdoing lawsuits. It totaled $67 million from January through July 2022, a pace much higher than in recent years. “These higher settlements typically signal more serious misconduct and more impact on the victims' lives,” said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney who said more oversight is needed. “When we see these bigger payouts, it’s like, ‘Should we look a little closer here?’”

The Long Island region has been wracked by unprecedented problems of law-enforcement oversight. During the past decade, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, Suffolk Chief of Police James Burke and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who oversaw the county’s police force, were all removed and later convicted on corruption charges by federal authorities. A 2014 U.S. Department of Justice settlement also required Suffolk to overhaul policing in minority communities, while a Conviction Integrity Unit has exposed past wrongdoing by both police and former prosecutors.

In March, Suffolk County reached a settlement with Manhattan-based civil rights organization LatinoJustice over allegations of widespread discrimination against Latinos, which also resulted in the Department of Justice monitoring the police department under a consent decree.

Critics said many of these lawsuits underline the problem of proper oversight by top officials, some of whom themselves have run afoul of the law.

In 2018, Suffolk agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Christopher Loeb, whose 2012 beating by Burke led to the conviction of the police chief and cover-up convictions of Spota and his top corruption prosecutor. The county agreed to the settlement without admitting any wrongdoing.

“I think Suffolk County learned a great deal from the Loeb-Burke-Spota fiasco,” said lawyer Bruce Barket, who represented Loeb in his lawsuit against the county. “Which is, you can’t allow law enforcement to become unassailable or ‘kings’ … If you’re in government and in law enforcement, you have to follow the rules. If you don’t, you’re going to wind up in situations like this where large amounts of money are being paid out to individuals.”

The November 2018 creation of the Suffolk district attorney's Conviction Integrity Bureau put a spotlight on the cost of past law-enforcement wrongdoing, and the lack of oversight and transparency in past cases. Along with exonerating Bush, it also reported on wrongdoing by former Suffolk prosecutor Glenn Kurtzrock in failing to disclose important evidence in murder trials. 

Shawn Lawrence, convicted by Kurtzrock in a murder case later vacated in 2018, has filed a $20 million lawsuit against Suffolk for police and prosecutorial misconduct after spending six years in prison. In July 2022, Rodolfo Taylor filed a $55 million federal lawsuit against Suffolk after spending 27 years in prison for robbery convictions that were vacated after a Conviction Integrity Bureau investigation. 

“I’m very concerned about taxpayers having to pay this money, but what I’m clear-eyed about is the cause of that,” said Bellone, referring to the Bush case and others. “We’re talking about corruption that is wrongfully convicting people, and the answer to that is not to hide that corruption.”

Bellone said his reform attempts to deal with law-enforcement wrongdoing have included upgrading oversight of the police department’s Internal Affairs unit and improved record-keeping so key evidence isn’t lost. Over the past decade, Bellone said he has hired new police commissioners with experience from outside law-enforcement agencies, such as the current commissioner, Rodney K. Harrison, formerly of the New York City Police Department.

“Holding people accountable and holding the system accountable — and being open and transparent when wrongdoing has occurred — is exactly intended to end corruption in the future,” Bellone said. “Only by shining sunlight on what has happened, rather than hiding it away — in the way the system has tried to do over the decades — all that does is breed more corruption. And ultimately it will cost taxpayers more money.”

Harrison did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, and Nassau Commissioner Patrick J. Ryder declined. Both Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney and Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly declined to be interviewed.

All six police unions representing superior officers, detectives and rank-and-file police officers for Nassau and Suffolk declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for interviews.

Both Bellone and Blakeman said police unions have no influence on how their counties handle lawsuits brought for alleged law-enforcement wrongdoing, and that they place a premium on public transparency.

“In the past, the county didn’t put on the record the amount of the settlements — that’s something we make sure we do every time,” Bellone said. “The only thing we really wouldn’t disclose is the legal strategy behind the settlements, because we’re making decisions that are designed to mitigate the costs to taxpayers. So we’re going to be as transparent as possible.”

Brewington, whose law firm has earned sizable legal fees from successful wrongdoing lawsuits against Long Island law enforcement, said the current oversight system, including police Internal Affairs review of civilian complaints about wrongdoing, is too weak.

“We on Long Island have a policing problem even though we oftentimes throw money at it,” Brewington said. “We know that Nassau and Suffolk counties have two of the highest-paid police forces in the country. They are funded well by public dollars. And as a result, they have a lot of latitude in what they do and what they’re not held accountable for.”

Blakeman said he’s spoken to police brass about his “zero-tolerance approach to wrongdoing” and is confident his county attorneys will avoid any future big payouts in court by carefully deciding when to settle claims that have merit. 

“If we’re paying out money, obviously something went wrong and I want to make sure that we have a protocol to try and avoid that,” Blakeman said.

With Jim Baumbach and Sandra Peddie

Long Island taxpayers have paid more than $165 million since 2000 to end lawsuits that alleged police and prosecutorial misconduct, including excessive force, false imprisonment and wrongful death, a Newsday investigation has found. 

The number of lawsuits with large-scale payouts for claims of law-enforcement wrongdoing has increased from 2011 to this year.

“There is a cost to this corruption,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said. “There’s a ‘corruption tax’ that, unfortunately, taxpayers are forced to pay. If you look at what has happened here, we’re talking about something that goes back decades.”

Defense lawyers said many lawsuits for alleged law-enforcement wrongdoing can take years to decide — some more than a decade if they go to trial rather than settle. The current system, they said, adds unnecessary taxpayer expense, furthers the injustice to those victimized by illegal actions by law enforcement and indicates more oversight of police is needed.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island taxpayers have paid at least $165 million to end lawsuits alleging police or prosecutorial misconduct since 2000.
  • Newsday's investigation uncovered 75 lawsuit settlements or jury awards between 2000 and January 2023.
  • Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called settlements and trial verdicts in law enforcement misconduct cases "a corruption tax."

Newsday's investigation reviewed court records and used the state’s public records law to obtain documents as part of its recent two-year "Policing on LI" series. The investigation uncovered 75 lawsuit settlements and jury verdicts between 2000 and January 2023 showing how much money local governments paid to settle lawsuits alleging police misconduct. 

Earlier this month, on May 2, a federal jury found Suffolk County liable for $750,000 in damages for malicious prosecution of Michael McDevitt, 61, of Deer Park, who claimed police beat him during a 2014 arrest. The jury also found the case was part of a pattern of misconduct.

“The cost of police when there are wrongful actions done, that is an enormous number of dollars that lie below the surface,” said Frederick Brewington, an attorney who has won several large settlements and trial jury awards. He said the Newsday survey of more than $165 million in penalties doesn’t include related costs. “We don’t talk about the impact of that on the long term — attorneys' fees, court costs, expert costs.”

There’s a 'corruption tax' that, unfortunately, taxpayers are forced to pay.

— Steve Bellone, Suffolk County executive

One of the costliest years for taxpayers was 2018.

Nassau County settled a lawsuit filed by Darryl Coggins for nearly $1 million. Coggins accused police of falsely arresting him on gun charges even though, he said, they knew he was innocent. Coggins spent two days in jail before charges were eventually dropped, court records and Brewington said.

That same year, Suffolk County lawmakers paid Martin Tankleff $10 million — atop $3.4 million already from state compensation funding — after he spent 17 years in prison on charges that he murdered his parents. A state appellate court overturned Tankleff's conviction in 2007. Suffolk prosecutors dismissed murder charges.  

Tankleff’s journey through the justice system took years to resolve. 

“There was no amount of money that anyone could give me that could give me my life back,” Tankleff said recently. “It shouldn’t take 10 years. In a lot of cases, especially mine, everybody knew what the facts were.”

The cost of misconduct: Martin Tankleff

What happened: Tankleff was convicted of murdering his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, in their Belle Terre home in 1988. A state appellate court overturned Tankleff's conviction in 2007.

The human cost: Tankleff served more than 17 years in prison before his conviction was thrown out.

The monetary cost: Suffolk lawmakers in 2018 paid Tankleff $10 million, atop $3.4 million from New York State.

Credit: Howard Schnapp

The U.S. Supreme Court, also in 2018, upheld a $43 million jury award to John Restivo and Dennis Halstead, who each spent 18 years in prison for a Nassau murder that DNA tests later proved they didn’t commit. Along with $2.2 million each already from state funding, their total of $47 million was one of the biggest payouts of its kind in the country, according to court records.

John Kogut also spent 18 years in prison for the crime before being released. A federal judge dismissed Kogut's civil rights claims against Nassau County and an appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling in 2015.

Nassau officials “fought tooth and nail” against the lawsuit, despite ample evidence of innocence offered by the two men, said Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann, attorney for Restivo and Halstead.

There was no amount of money that anyone could give me that could give me my life back.

— Martin Tankleff, exonerated in his parents’ murder

“When you get DNA evidence that excluded them and more information is coming out, it’s hard to defend fighting and trying to draw things out and not conceding innocence when I think innocence was pretty clear,” she said.

Hoffmann said Long Island is known as a place where taxpayers are willing to pay a lot for police protection with little oversight, leading to costly lawsuits.

The cost of misconduct: Dennis Halstead and John Restivo

What happened: Halstead, Restivo and a third man, John Kogut, were convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco. DNA tests later proved they didn’t commit the crime.

The human cost: Halstead and Restivo spent 18 years in prison before they were released in 2003.

The monetary cost: The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld a $43 million trial jury award to Halstead and Restivo, in addition to the $2.2 million they each received from New York State.

Credit: Ed Betz

“Unfortunately, this is a problem not just in Nassau and Suffolk counties but also in a lot of places in the United States where there is a lack of accountability for police officers,” Hoffmann said. “There’s just not a systemic accountability. If anything, the culture often is the opposite. The culture is the blue wall of silence where we cover up for each other.”

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, who took office in January 2022, said he was surprised to learn the extent and cost of big-ticket lawsuits faced by the county because of alleged wrongdoing by law enforcement.

There’s just not a systemic accountability. If anything, the culture often is the opposite. The culture is the blue wall of silence where we cover up for each other.

— Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann, criminal defense attorney

“We have had anomalies — those that have strayed — and we paid a big price for it,” Blakeman said about police accused of misconduct in expensive lawsuits. “Some of it is frivolous and we’re going to defend [the county] to the hilt. But sometimes an argument is being made by a plaintiff, and in appropriate circumstances we may be wrong. And if we are wrong, we should try to lessen our damages and settle cases that are capable of being settled.”

Large payouts budget busters

Adam Barsky, chair of the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, said a huge court penalty for alleged claims of law-enforcement wrongdoing can be a budget buster, throwing the county into a deficit. Currently, the county has reported a budget surplus, thanks to higher sales tax revenue and COVID-related federal funding. But in the past, this state-appointed budget watchdog panel has battled with Nassau officials who wanted to issue long-term bonds to pay for these costly penalties, rather than face the immediate budgetary impact.

NIFA chairman Adam Barsky in Uniondale in October 2019. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

“A significant judgment is very difficult for a county, especially a county like Nassau that has had a lot of fiscal stress in the past,” Barsky said. “There’s been a real pushback to make sure that good cops are protected, but bad cops are penalized appropriately … I think you’re seeing a sea change not only in Nassau County, but you’re seeing it throughout the country.” 

A more recent big-ticket settlement resulted from the 2019 exoneration of Keith Bush, who spent 33 years in prison for a 1974 murder of a Bellport High School classmate. After a lengthy re-investigation by the Suffolk district attorney's Conviction Integrity Bureau confirmed Bush’s innocence, officials apologized to him publicly.

County officials decided to settle with Bush rather than run the fiscal risk of a jury trial award, where experts said successful lawsuits usually cost about $1 million for every year of wrongful imprisonment. 

The cost of misconduct: Keith Bush

What happened: Bush was convicted for the 1975 murder of a Bellport High School classmate. After a lengthy reinvestigation by the Suffolk DA’s Conviction Integrity Bureau confirmed Bush’s innocence, officials apologized to him publicly.

The human cost: Bush spent 33 years in prison before his exoneration in 2019.

The monetary cost: Suffolk County in 2022 authorized a $16 million federal court settlement to go along with $5 million he already received from the state Court of Claims for his wrongful conviction.

Credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As a result last year, Suffolk authorized a $16 million federal court settlement to go along with $5 million he already had received from the state Court of Claims for his wrongful conviction.

“It was never about the dollars,” Bush, then 64, said after his exhaustive legal battle that stretched for decades.

While still costly, Long Island municipalities are increasingly willing to settle lawsuits, rather than face higher possible payouts from trial juries. From 2000-10, there were five trial jury awards and eight settlements. But from 2011-23, it jumped to eight trials and 54 settlements and monetary awards.

 

Most of the lawsuits reviewed by Newsday involved Nassau’s and Suffolk’s county police departments — among the most handsomely paid in the nation — but others involved smaller forces run by local towns and villages. 

In 2020, for example, Hempstead Village officials agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit by Abel Antonio Alvarenga Vasquez, who claimed he suffered a disabling injury during arrest by police.

“We eventually did settle it, and I think it was in the county’s best interest — the taxpayers' best interest — that we did that because we alleviated a potential liability that could have been much greater,” Blakeman said about Nassau’s $2 million share of the settlement. “We also ended a lot of expense, not only in terms of internal resources, but also outside counsel.”

Not all payouts are huge, with more than half under $1 million for improper actions. Last year, for instance, a federal appeals court upheld a $150,000 award against Nassau for the false arrest of a man who spent one night in jail. And Suffolk forked over $50,000 in 2017 for improperly arresting a man taking video at a crime scene.

But others carry multimillion-dollar penalties for alleged wrongdoing in long-running cases. These payouts include the $7.7 million settlement in 2012 to the family of domestic violence murder victim Jo’Anna Bird because police failed to protect her.

The cost of misconduct: Jo'Anna Bird

What happened: Bird sought help from the police to protect herself from her violent ex-boyfriend, Leonardo Valdez Cruz.

The human cost: Valdez Cruz fatally stabbed Bird in her Westbury home in 2009.

The monetary cost: Nassau County agreed in 2012 to pay Bird’s family a $7.7 million settlement for the police department’s failure to protect her.

Credit: Bird family

Wary of a big payout from a potential jury trial, Blakeman in March 2022 helped negotiate an agreement with Suffolk officials to pay a total $3 million to Huntington Station cab driver Thomas Moroughan to settle. He alleged that he was shot without cause by an off-duty Nassau police officer during an alcohol-fueled road-rage incident. In court papers, Moroughan accused police of covering up the incident and sought as much as $30 million in damages. Nassau settled its share of the case for $2 million.

Insufficient civilian oversight

Besides costing taxpayers millions, and in some instances saddling local governments with long-term debt, the cost of police and prosecutorial wrongdoing highlights insufficient civilian oversight of law enforcement, experts said.

Frank Straub, a director of the National Policing Institute, a nonpartisan research group, said the $165 million Newsday uncovered reflects greater scrutiny of police actions in recent years. 

“Lawsuits against the police can be a form of oversight,” Straub said. “It does provide — especially when there is a trial — opportunities for disclosure of acts, which then create opportunities for reform. If police agencies or political leaders are taking these [allegations] seriously, what they shouldn’t be doing is simply settling a lawsuit — ‘Here’s X dollars, go away, we’re sorry this happened to you.’ But they should really use it as an important opportunity to figure out what went wrong.”

If police agencies or political leaders are taking these [allegations] seriously, what they shouldn’t be doing is simply settling a lawsuit.

— Frank Straub, National Policing Institute director

Straub said it’s important that government officials heed the lessons from these lawsuits and insist on better training and oversight by police, if needed.

“It becomes their obligation as elected representatives of the community to make sure the appropriate reforms are put into place, or safeguards put in place, to prevent similar acts in the future,” Straub said.

A national trend 

The escalating cost of law-enforcement lawsuits on Long Island comes amid increasing scrutiny of police and prosecutors both nationally and locally.

The suffocation murder of George Floyd during a May 2020 arrest in Minnesota prompted nationwide protests about police methods, especially toward racial minorities, and calls in New York State for reform and better oversight. Floyd’s family later received a $27 million settlement from a wrongful-death lawsuit. 

The Newsday survey of Long Island payouts appears to be following a national trend. At least $1.5 billion has been paid by U.S. municipalities to settle police misconduct lawsuits since 2010, according to The Washington Post and other news accounts.

In New York, the state Court of Claims provides money to people imprisoned who can show their innocence, usually through an exoneration or dismissal of criminal charges. These payouts are in addition to the money they may have received  from private lawsuits for damages and civil rights violations. Since 2012, the state has paid $195 million in 84 actions for unjust convictions, records show. All but one of the cases settled rather than were decided at jury trials. Long Island payouts from the state amount to $14.5 million, with the vast majority coming from New York City cases. 

The Legal Aid Society tracked a big boost last year in New York City payouts for police wrongdoing lawsuits. It totaled $67 million from January through July 2022, a pace much higher than in recent years. “These higher settlements typically signal more serious misconduct and more impact on the victims' lives,” said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney who said more oversight is needed. “When we see these bigger payouts, it’s like, ‘Should we look a little closer here?’”

When we see these bigger payouts, it’s like, ‘Should we look a little closer here?’

— Jennvine Wong, Legal Aid Society staff attorney

The Long Island region has been wracked by unprecedented problems of law-enforcement oversight. During the past decade, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, Suffolk Chief of Police James Burke and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who oversaw the county’s police force, were all removed and later convicted on corruption charges by federal authorities. A 2014 U.S. Department of Justice settlement also required Suffolk to overhaul policing in minority communities, while a Conviction Integrity Unit has exposed past wrongdoing by both police and former prosecutors.

In March, Suffolk County reached a settlement with Manhattan-based civil rights organization LatinoJustice over allegations of widespread discrimination against Latinos, which also resulted in the Department of Justice monitoring the police department under a consent decree.

Critics said many of these lawsuits underline the problem of proper oversight by top officials, some of whom themselves have run afoul of the law.

In 2018, Suffolk agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Christopher Loeb, whose 2012 beating by Burke led to the conviction of the police chief and cover-up convictions of Spota and his top corruption prosecutor. The county agreed to the settlement without admitting any wrongdoing.

“I think Suffolk County learned a great deal from the Loeb-Burke-Spota fiasco,” said lawyer Bruce Barket, who represented Loeb in his lawsuit against the county. “Which is, you can’t allow law enforcement to become unassailable or ‘kings’ … If you’re in government and in law enforcement, you have to follow the rules. If you don’t, you’re going to wind up in situations like this where large amounts of money are being paid out to individuals.”

You can’t allow law enforcement to become unassailable.

— Bruce Barket, criminal defense attorney

The November 2018 creation of the Suffolk district attorney's Conviction Integrity Bureau put a spotlight on the cost of past law-enforcement wrongdoing, and the lack of oversight and transparency in past cases. Along with exonerating Bush, it also reported on wrongdoing by former Suffolk prosecutor Glenn Kurtzrock in failing to disclose important evidence in murder trials. 

Suffolk could face more big-time payouts

Shawn Lawrence, convicted by Kurtzrock in a murder case later vacated in 2018, has filed a $20 million lawsuit against Suffolk for police and prosecutorial misconduct after spending six years in prison. In July 2022, Rodolfo Taylor filed a $55 million federal lawsuit against Suffolk after spending 27 years in prison for robbery convictions that were vacated after a Conviction Integrity Bureau investigation. 

“I’m very concerned about taxpayers having to pay this money, but what I’m clear-eyed about is the cause of that,” said Bellone, referring to the Bush case and others. “We’re talking about corruption that is wrongfully convicting people, and the answer to that is not to hide that corruption.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge in February. Credit: Rick Kopstein

Bellone said his reform attempts to deal with law-enforcement wrongdoing have included upgrading oversight of the police department’s Internal Affairs unit and improved record-keeping so key evidence isn’t lost. Over the past decade, Bellone said he has hired new police commissioners with experience from outside law-enforcement agencies, such as the current commissioner, Rodney K. Harrison, formerly of the New York City Police Department.

“Holding people accountable and holding the system accountable — and being open and transparent when wrongdoing has occurred — is exactly intended to end corruption in the future,” Bellone said. “Only by shining sunlight on what has happened, rather than hiding it away — in the way the system has tried to do over the decades — all that does is breed more corruption. And ultimately it will cost taxpayers more money.”

Harrison did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, and Nassau Commissioner Patrick J. Ryder declined. Both Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney and Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly declined to be interviewed.

Zero-tolerance approach

All six police unions representing superior officers, detectives and rank-and-file police officers for Nassau and Suffolk declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for interviews.

Both Bellone and Blakeman said police unions have no influence on how their counties handle lawsuits brought for alleged law-enforcement wrongdoing, and that they place a premium on public transparency.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman in Mineola in December. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

“In the past, the county didn’t put on the record the amount of the settlements — that’s something we make sure we do every time,” Bellone said. “The only thing we really wouldn’t disclose is the legal strategy behind the settlements, because we’re making decisions that are designed to mitigate the costs to taxpayers. So we’re going to be as transparent as possible.”

Brewington, whose law firm has earned sizable legal fees from successful wrongdoing lawsuits against Long Island law enforcement, said the current oversight system, including police Internal Affairs review of civilian complaints about wrongdoing, is too weak.

“We on Long Island have a policing problem even though we oftentimes throw money at it,” Brewington said. “We know that Nassau and Suffolk counties have two of the highest-paid police forces in the country. They are funded well by public dollars. And as a result, they have a lot of latitude in what they do and what they’re not held accountable for.”

We on Long Island have a policing problem even though we oftentimes throw money at it.

— Frederick Brewington, civil rights attorney

Blakeman said he’s spoken to police brass about his “zero-tolerance approach to wrongdoing” and is confident his county attorneys will avoid any future big payouts in court by carefully deciding when to settle claims that have merit. 

“If we’re paying out money, obviously something went wrong and I want to make sure that we have a protocol to try and avoid that,” Blakeman said.

With Jim Baumbach and Sandra Peddie

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