The city of Fort Worth has paid $480,385 since 2017 on police liability claims. More than a quarter of that spending came from a single case.
During each City Council meeting, staff prepare a presentation outlining liability claims filed by residents over the past month. These presentations include the name of the claimant, the department involved, the incident type and whether there was an injury to the claimant, among other details.
But the final disposition of these claims — and how much they cost the city — are rarely presented publicly, a fact that residents have lamented at public comment meetings. The Fort Worth Report requested all liability claims from 2017 to 2022, including the cost incurred by the city for each claim, and then analyzed them by liability coverage type.
Among those coverage types is police liability. These claims can range from allegations of police brutality to the enforcement of ordinances that residents argue are unconstitutional. The Report found that, since 2017, residents have filed 164 police liability claims. Of those, only 54 resulted in costs to the city.
The majority of police liability claims in Fort Worth pay out somewhere between zero to $1,000. But a few end up costing the city tens of thousands of dollars each year. The most recent resulted from the arrest of Jacqueline Craig, a Fort Worth mother whose 2016 arrest sparked outrage nationally.
Craig’s $150,000 settlement is the largest police liability claim the city has handed out since at least 2017. It makes up 45% of the total costs incurred by the city from these types of claims during that time frame.
Fort Worth, as a whole, pays out far less for liability claims compared with neighboring Dallas. A review of claims from 2012 to 2017 by CBS DFW found Dallas spent more than $10.8 million to settle law enforcement lawsuits. An analysis by the Star-Telegram showed in total, Fort Worth spent only $2.2 million from 2009 to 2019, and almost all of that came from a single case in 2013.
“We strongly defend cases where the city has no liability,” city spokesperson Valerie Colapret wrote in an email. “This has led to fewer settlements and more dismissals in favor of the City.”
‘I don’t think they handle the civil rights cases fairly’
Tracy Langiano was asleep in a hotel bed when a Fort Worth police officer opened fire and shot him multiple times while responding to a request for a welfare check. Langiano survived, but he said the incident left him with a permanent disability and lifelong pain.
He is now involved in an ongoing civil rights case against the city for the actions of that officer, in what his attorney, Susan Hutchison with Hutchison and Foreman PLLC, describes as a pattern of officers using excessive force when responding to welfare checks.
“They have immunity unless you can prove that they have an official policy that sanctions unconstitutional conduct or they’ve engaged in such a widespread pattern of that kind of conduct that amounts to a policy on the part of the city,” Hutchison said. “And that’s super hard to prove.”
After the city published a third-party commission’s expert review report on the Fort Worth Police Department in 2022 following the shooting and killing of Atatiana Jefferson, Hutchison argued the 97-page document outlined evidence that what happened to Langiano wasn’t an isolated incident. The city should be held liable for its role in allowing officers to continue using excessive force during welfare checks, she said.
Among the cases Hutchison cited in her argument was Jefferson’s death. Jefferson was shot and killed by a now former Fort Worth police officer, Aaron Dean, in 2019, after a neighbor requested a welfare check. Dean was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 11 years in prison in December.
“The failure to de-escalate is more dangerous for officers and residents, contrary to departmental policy, and contributes to a sense of mistrust between officers and community members,” members of the expert review panel wrote in their report.
Hutchison said she doesn’t have high hopes the officer who shot Langiano, or the city, will be held responsible. The case is currently in the appeals process after it was dismissed by a judge last September.
“I think that commission was maybe an attempt on the part of the city to address specific conduct, but I don’t think they handle the civil rights cases fairly,” she said.
Death of resident leads to $75,000 liability payout
Christopher Lowe, 55, died in the back of a Fort Worth police cruiser in 2018.
In the minutes before his death, Lowe repeatedly told five officers he couldn’t breathe and thought he was dying. In response, officers discussed how to drop him off at a hospital for a mental evaluation without telling hospital staff that they thought he was under the influence of narcotics.
Instead of immediately transporting him to the hospital, the involved officers assumed Lowe was lying in an attempt to get out of jail and delayed, according to court documents. He died before arriving at the hospital.
The actions of those officers cost the city $75,000 in liability. The city is primarily self-insured, which means that instead of paying a third-party insurance provider, Fort Worth sets aside money in a fund for liability costs. Filed claims are handled internally by licensed claims adjusters.
“Each year the self-funded program is evaluated to determine if it is the most cost-effective method versus purchasing insurance,” Colapret said. “The Self-Insurance Program is a more cost-effective method, which is less of an impact on the residents of Fort Worth.”
In a self-insurance system, the entity itself takes on the risk involved, rather than transferring it to an insurance company. The city does not have to pay traditional premiums, so costs can vary from year to year.
Four of the five officers involved with the Lowe case remained with the department after Lowe’s death. A third-party arbiter overruled then-police Chief Joel Fitzgerald’s decision to fire or indefinitely suspend them.
Successful liability claims against officers don’t guarantee that they will lose their position with the department. Instead, they may receive temporary suspensions or other lesser discipline for their actions, and be allowed to resume their role once the discipline is complete, according to the department’s disciplinary matrix. Colapret said the city does not have a written policy for reinstated officers that win their arbitration when it comes to department assignments.
“However, we weigh each case based on the circumstances to make sure the officer’s assignments are in the best interest of our citizens and department,” Colapret said. “Additionally, any time the department sees a training deficiency, an officer will be sent for further training to reduce the possibility of repeated behavior.”
The liability claim filed by Lowe’s family represents the second largest payout of its kind in Fort Worth since 2017, per claim records obtained by the Report through an open records request.
‘City governments overstep every day’
Not all police liability claims pertain to police brutality or misconduct.
One, filed by Brookes Baker, came about as a result of an officer enforcing a city ordinance. The ordinance held that residents had to obtain City Council approval before placing signs on public property.
This became a problem when Baker placed 18-inch crosses in the public right-of-way in front of an abortion clinic. He was cited for violating the ordinance and took the issue to court, where he won a partial summary judgment and the ordinance was ruled unconstitutional.
“If you are politically disfavored by the city, they come down hard on you with more penalties,” attorney Warren Norred, who represented Baker, said. “There was somebody that works in that area in that part of the city law enforcement that enjoyed over-enforcement. And so (Baker) got citations and attention he should not have gotten.”
Norred specializes in, among other areas of law, Section 1983 claims. Section 1983, a federal statute, allows residents to sue government entities and employees for violations of their civil rights that occurred “under the color of law.” In order for these claims to be successful, a plaintiff must prove that the conduct was done in accordance with a local rule or law, whose enforcement denied them their constitutional rights.
“City governments overstep every day,” Norred said. “There’s always some government entities close by overstepping its boundaries.”
In the end, Baker received $27,500 for his claim.
Ongoing police liability claims include estate of Atatiana Jefferson, Amber Carr
Twenty-one police liability claims are still open, according to records obtained by the Report. The oldest claim dates back to 2019.
Among the open claims is one filed by the estate of Atatiana Jefferson, and another filed by Amber Carr, Jefferson’s sister, on behalf of a minor. Attorney Lee Merritt, who is representing the family, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He previously said the family is seeking federal civil rights charges against Dean for the shooting.
“We will send over what’s called a one-pager to the White House asking for their intervention, acknowledging that this criminal case is complete,” Merritt said at a December press conference. “And then we expect to see an aggressive federal prosecution.”
The Jefferson family liability claims have been the subject of multiple closed-door executive session discussions between council members, according to agendas of those meetings released by the city. They are separate from the criminal proceedings surrounding Jefferson’s shooting.
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At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.