SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — In the past four years, the city of Sacramento has spent millions of taxpayer dollars to settle lawsuits.
A good portion of those settlements were high-profile cases. The intersection at Freeport and Oregon cost the city of Sacramento $11 million back in 2020.
A family sued the city after a young boy and his grandmother were hit by a car at the crosswalk two years prior.
She did not survive.
In the same year, 2020, the city spent more than $13.5 million total in lawsuit settlements. It doesn’t stop there.
In 2019, the city finalized a $5.2 million payout following a 2017 incident where Sacramento police officers chased John Hernandez, wrestled him to the ground, tased him and hit him with a baton.
The city also shelled out $2.4 million to Stephon Clark’s family the same year in a wrongful death lawsuit. Clark — who wasn’t armed — was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers in his grandmother’s backyard.
In 2019 alone, the city spent more than $8.4 million to settle litigation.
All the settlements add up to tens of millions in taxpayer money. In the past four years alone, Sacramento has spent more than $37.4 million.
In 2018, $6.1 million were spent, and $9.4 million in 2021.
To put that into perspective, in 2018, the city budgeted about $6.5 million for bikeway improvements, completing the Sacramento River Parkway bike trail and economic development.
That is nearly the same number they spent on lawsuits in the same year.
FOX40 wanted to dig a bit deeper to see how the city settles on those amounts and what happens when someone sues the city for a significant amount.
“The first time we can actually get anything from the city is when we’ve already sued them,” said Mark Merin, a civil rights attorney.
As a civil rights attorney in Sacramento for nearly 50 years, Merin has represented many people who’ve sued the city. With every case against the city, he said he gives them a chance to settle the dispute before filing a formal lawsuit.
“They almost never, never take advantage of the opportunity to resolve a case at that point,” Merin said.
That’s when Merin and his client will file a complaint to try to get the city to admit its wrongs. But he said those cases often drag on and end up costing the city a lot of money.
“They’ve probably paid out more to defense attorneys, in many cases, than they actually pay out to the plaintiffs to resolve a case,” Merin said.
One of Merin’s most notable cases began after the hundreds of demonstrators marched through East Sacramento to protest the Sacramento County District Attorney’s decision in 2019 not to charge the two officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark.
“The city didn’t like it. They sent police officers to round up the demonstrators, to block off their exits,” Merin said.
Merin represented dozens who were arrested.
“Arrested all the people. I think there were 84 of them,” Merin said.
Merin said his clients were handcuffed and taken to Cal Expo, and after about eight to 10 hours, they were released.
“It was an outrageous violation of freedom of expression, first amendment rights,” Merin told FOX40.
A year later, in 2020, the city agreed to settle with Merin and paid nearly $500,000. It’s an amount Merin said the city could’ve avoided by admitting fault sooner.
“They’re not interested in talking about resolution. All they’re interested in talking about is chalking up the hours and getting the money flowing,” Merin said.
“We do listen, and we do change,” said Timothy Davis, President of the Sacramento Officers Association.
Davis said it’s not about the money.
“Pay settlements or anything like that, that’s not what we’re concerned about. What we’re concerned about is how we can best serve this community. That means learning from things that don’t go well,” Davis said.
Having been with the department for nearly 25 years and a representative of all officers, Davis said his fellow officers will make mistakes. But he said the intention is always to protect the community.
“Oftentimes it’s not because the officer did anything wrong, or the training was lacking, or the policies were bad, it’s because those were the actions of the person that we’re engaged in are driving what the outcome is,” Davis said.
Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester declined to speak with FOX40 on camera. Instead, a spokesperson said the department is working to improve how officers are trained.
The goal of the department is to be a leader in progressive policing and improve how the community is served.