Last week, Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, introduced an ordinance in City Council that would require personal liability insurance for police officers responsible for more than $200,000 in misconduct lawsuit settlements. This idea has been raised elsewhere as a way to reduce the financial impact of police misconduct on cities and taxpayers. An investigation by The Chicago Reporter found that the city spent more than $210 million on such lawsuits from 2012 to 2015, relying on high-interest borrowing to pay it off.
The Reporter talked with Ald. Villegas about his proposed ordinance and why he believes it is “pro-taxpayer,” not “anti-police.”
Where did the idea for this ordinance come from? Why is this important to you?
I was continuing to vote on big settlements. And when a number came out that it was half a billion dollars (over 10 years) in costs for settlements, that kind of started me thinking about this. Why aren’t we requiring liability insurance, so that we’re not impacting our budget and taxpayers? In some instances where there are settlements for police misconduct, it’s not that police officer’s first time in that situation. So (my thinking was) if someone has a track record of these issues and the investigation determines that something did occur, and it’s repeatedly, then he needs to have some liability insurance to protect us, the taxpayers of the city of Chicago.
No, I just thought of it. To be honest with you, I wanted to start a dialogue. If there is another municipality or another state that has a similar statute enacted, I would be willing to take a look at it. But my thing was to start a conversation and really protect the taxpayers from these settlements. Half a billion dollars over the past 10 years, I mean, that’s a ton of money. (Editor’s note: A police liability insurance proposal was introduced in the Maryland legislature in February 2015, but was withdrawn a month later.)
Have you talked with attorneys about any of this? Do you know if it’s going to run up against state law or the police contract?
I really haven’t dived into too many of the details, because what I really want to do is to start a dialogue and to get people at the table, to find a way to explore this as an option. Again, I’m going to go back to half a billion over 10 years. We could have utilized those funds for a lot better things than the settlements that were awarded (for lawsuits) against officers. So to be honest, I have not dived deep into those details, because I’m not an attorney, I’m a political science guy. But I know that there’s a problem here and I’m trying to find a solution.
Have you talked to any of your fellow aldermen about joining as co-sponsors?
My staff inadvertently submitted the ordinance without me getting any co-sponsors on board. But I’ve spoken to some other alderman that would consider being a co-sponsor on this.
Given that the ordinance now has to go through the Finance Committee, which is chaired by Ald. Ed Burke, a former police officer, what do you think are the chances of it getting through?
I don’t know. I would have to begin to lobby to see if there were a way to get it. This is not an anti-police ordinance. This is a pro-taxpayers ordinance. What I would say is that 99 percent of police officers don’t have to be concerned about this. But in some instances, this police officer could have a track record, and there’s not a solution to deal with the financial impact of these situations. So that’s the angle I’m looking at. The police contract is another thing that I guess we’ll be looking at in City Council. But again, this is not an anti-police ordinance, this is a pro-taxpayers ordinance. Again, it’s so that the taxpayer is not having to pay for the entire mistake of a city employee.
In most cases, the city settles, so they don’t legally admit liability. Could that be a problem in trying to get an insurance company to pay the claim?
That’s where I would look to experts in that area to find a way in how to frame it. The intent, again, is to protect taxpayers, because half a billion dollars is a lot of money and to do nothing is just irresponsible. I want to start a dialogue. I mean, I’m a freshman alderman, and it didn’t take long to understand that people can talk about things, but until things are drafted, that’s when the discussion really starts. So I took the first step and had my attorney draft something to get the conversation started.
What happens next?
I’m a creature of Springfield so I’m still learning the City Council process. But I’m going to have to speak to the chairman to find out if he’s willing to talk about this. Because a lot of times there’s a lot of good ordinances that are introduced but they just get stuck in committee, and the chairman of the committee, there’s no time frame that requires him to act on it; he can just let it sit. So I’m going to have to talk to the chairman to find out if he’s willing to have this ordinance heard. I’m going to have to get some community support around it, to try to see if I can get some help with some pressure on some of my colleagues to take a look at this.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.