New York City Takes Steps to Better Fight Suits Against Police


When New York City paid $5,000 last year to settle a lawsuit by a man who was shot in the leg by police officers after he had threatened them with a machete, outrage came from all corners: police unions, newspaper editorials and even Mayor Bill de Blasio, who condemned the deal struck by his own Law Department.

“Our officers did everything right,” the mayor said in a television interview last January. “They were threatened with violence. How on earth could any lawyer, with a straight face, say we should pay money to the guy who had the machete?”

The settlement and the ensuing debate helped drive a new aggressive approach by the city in dealing with the roughly 3,000 lawsuits filed annually against the police.

In the past year, officials said, the city has moved to improve the quality of the investigations into claims against officers: Police Commissioner William J. Bratton created a new 40-member legal unit that develops evidence that the Law Department can use to defend lawsuits against the police, and the department hired about 30 lawyers to bolster its litigation teams and to try more cases in court.

Zachary W. Carter, the city’s corporation counsel, said this week that the decision to settle lawsuits alleging police misconduct “has always been based on an assessment of the evidentiary merit” of each case. But the change “that was the most stark,” he said, “was that in cases utterly lacking merit, we will not throw money at them just to make them go away.”

That approach, however, was tested by the $5,000 deal in the machete case, which was memorialized by a headline in The New York Post, “Ax & You Shall Receive.”

The case stemmed from a 2010 altercation in Brooklyn, when two officers had responded to a call concerning a man who was carrying a machete. The officers ordered the man, Ruhim Ullah, to drop the weapon, but he ignored their commands and moved toward them in a threatening manner, and one officer shot him in the leg, the police said.

Mr. Ullah pleaded guilty to menacing an officer.

But his lawsuit, which sought $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages, claimed he had dropped the machete and ran when the officers arrived. The suit accused the police of falsely stating that he had threatened them with the weapon.

“I understand the other side sees it differently — that’s why we have trials,” Mr. Ullah’s lawyer, Scott G. Cerbin, said. “It’s a case that got a lot of attention it really didn’t warrant.”

Even before the deal in the machete case, Mr. de Blasio, Mr. Bratton and Mr. Carter were trying to address the high rate of settlements, said Lawrence Byrne, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for legal matters. But he added that the case “highlighted for others within the administration that this was a problem that we had to fix.”

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, had declared that the city would not “coddle these ambulance-chasing lawyers anymore.” A deputy mayor, Anthony E. Shorris, wrote to presidents of police unions to inform them of the Law Department’s new policies to improve the legal defense of officers. To ensure suits were not frivolous, his letter said, city lawyers would review “sworn testimony of claimants and interviews of officers,” steps that had not always been taken in the past, police officials and union lawyers said.

Officers would also be promptly told of cases in which they were involved. “No member of the department should ever be surprised to find a suit has been filed or settled against them,” Mr. Shorris wrote.

The letter also said that when the city found that a lawsuit “utterly lacks merit,” it would not be settled, “even if an economic cost-benefit analysis suggests otherwise.”

In its first year of operation, Mr. Bratton’s new legal unit has assisted the Law Department in about 500 lawsuits, identifying and collecting evidence such as surveillance recordings and public information on the Internet, said Elizabeth M. Daitz, a department lawyer who leads the unit under Mr. Byrne.

In one suit, for example, a man and a woman claimed false arrest and other civil rights violations stemming from a 2014 encounter at the Nostrand Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.