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When It Comes To Police Reform, Insurance Companies May Play A Role

For all the talk in the last couple of years about reforming police, there are limits to what the government can do. But there may be another way, and it involves insurance companies.

John Rappaport, an assistant law professor at the University of Chicago, says he spent years studying police reform before it dawned on him to ask a basic question: What were the insurance companies doing?

"I just went on to Google and started searching and was just instantly amazed with the stuff I was finding," Rappaport says.

It turned out insurers were trying to limit the liability of the police departments they cover.

"One of the first things I found was this pamphlet from Travelers Insurance about how to do a strip search, and I just thought people in my world have no idea that this stuff is out there and it's really fascinating," Rappaport says.

It was fascinating to him, because it seemed to offer a solution to a fundamental problem when it comes to reform: police departments usually don't feel the financial pain of a lawsuit. It's not the officers' personal money, obviously, and even the department budget is not usually at stake when somebody sues. If the city has liability insurance, on the other hand, the insurer does feel the pain — and it may try to do something to lessen it.

"They look for ways to push police departments in a direction of reduced risk," Rappaport says.

That's been the experience of William T. Riley III. When he was chief of police in Selma, Ala., he says the city's insurer made a point of getting together with him after a use-of-force incident to see what could be learned.

"And one of the things that we did when we had somebody sue us or whatever is we went over it with a fine-tooth comb to see if there's some place that we fell short on," Riley says.

Most of the time, the insurers' role is informational. They send out bulletins to police departments about the latest court precedents on, say, use of force. But some go further, paying for special training for the police departments.

Steve Albrecht does that kind of training in California.

"We're seeing forward-thinking chiefs and forward-thinking insurance companies that are working in partnership and I think that's a benefit. And I think if that's driven by the business part of that then so much the better to get the changes we need," Albrecht says.

This kind of hands-on approach is most common with insurance pools, non-profit entities that cover groups of police agencies, especially in Western states. As membership organizations, they see it as part of their function to give advice to police departments. Commercial insurance companies, on the other hand, take a more market-oriented approach.

"Ultimately, the way we can influence behavior does come down to price," says Tim McAuliffe, who's with a commerical insurer called Ironshore. He's actually a little dubious about this idea that insurance companies can promote reform. He says companies like his don't really get into the minutiae of recommending best practices or training to police departments.

"They may do, like, a conference call if it was specific to a police incident. They may ask for a conference call with a police chief but that's generally as far as I've seen companies go," he says.

Still, insurers tend to understate their own influence, in part because they don't want to be seen as dictating policies to local law enforcement. Joanna Schwartz is a law professor at UCLA who studies how police manage liability, and she agrees with Rappaport that insurers can play the role of an honest broker to force a city to learn from its police department's mistakes.

"They are highly motivated to reform because it affects their bottom line, and they're not constrained by any of the political counterforces that could prevent the city council or mayor from pushing hard on a law enforcement agency to reform," Schwartz says.

These political counter-forces, she believes, which have been at work in some of the nation's biggest cities — such as Chicago — typically don't rely on insurance to pay out legal settlements. In those cities, the payouts have simply been absorbed by the larger budget over the years, and now the police find themselves in the middle of major crises over the use of excessive force.

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Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.