A patrol officer in the St. Louis suburb of St. Ann spotted a minivan with an expired license plate, flipped on his lights and siren, and when the driver failed to stop, gave chase. The driver fled in rush-hour traffic at speeds of up to 90 mph, slamming into another car and leaving its driver permanently disabled.
The 2017 police chase was part of a long line of questionable vehicle pursuits by St. Ann officers. Eleven people had been injured in 19 crashes over two years. St. Ann Police Chief Aaron Jimenez stood behind the pursuits and cited the department’s decades-old motto: “St. Ann will chase you until the wheels fall off.” The St. Louis Area Insurance Trust risk pool, which provided liability coverage to St. Ann, threatened to cancel it if the department didn’t impose restrictions on its use of police chases. City officials looked for alternative coverage but learned that costs would nearly double if they did not agree to their insurer’s demands. In 2019, the chief and his 48-member department agreed to ban high-speed pursuits for traffic infractions and minor, nonviolent crimes, reports the Washington Post.
“I didn’t really have a choice,” Jimenez said. “If I didn’t do it, the insurance rates were going to go way up. I was going to have to lose 10 officers to pay for it.”
Where activists, victims and city officials have failed to persuade police departments to change dangerous and sometimes deadly policing practices, insurers are successfully dictating changes to tactics and policies, mostly at small to medium-size departments.
The movement is driven by increasingly large jury awards and settlements that cities and their insurers are paying in police use-of-force cases, especially since the 2020 deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Those cases led to settlements of $12 million and $27 million, respectively. Insurance companies are passing the costs — and potential future costs — on to their law enforcement clients.
Larger law enforcement agencies — like the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department or the New York Police Department — may create a special fund to finance settlements or by paying those costs from the county’s or city’s general fund. This insulates them from demands by insurers.
Departments with a long history of large civil rights settlements have seen their insurance rates shoot up by 200 to 400 percent over the past three years.