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View from around the state: An unsettling settlement

— From The Journal Times of Racine

The full facts of the civil rights lawsuit against four Racine police officers and the city of Racine may never be known, now that the City Council has agreed to a $100,000 settlement of the case.

For city taxpayers, that’s either an unsettling settlement or a matter of cutting their potential losses.

The case was filed by city resident Miguel Veguilla, who claimed he was unfairly treated and had his civil rights violated by the four officers during an incident on July 3, 2014 when they came to his home to investigate a car crash involving Veguilla’s girlfriend, an accident that Veguilla was unaware of, according to the suit.

The lawsuit charged that Veguilla was allegedly handcuffed and beaten outside of his home while in his underwear. His attorney, Michael Sperling, said Veguilla suffered a torn rotator cuff in the incident and had to have surgery.

Veguilla was arrested and held on suspicion of resisting arrest in the incident — but that charge was dropped.

Racine police said the incident was reviewed internally and by independent use of force experts and the officers’ actions were determined to have been legal, but Chief Art Howell said last week that while force was used to effect the arrest, Veguilla’s injuries were not the “optimal or desired outcome.”

All four officers remain with the department.

City Council members went out of their way to voice support for Racine police officers during debate on the issue.

“I think it’s important for our police officers to understand that we, the City Council, have their back,” said Sixth District Alderman Sandy Weidner.

Then the council voted 12-2 to go for the $100,000 payment to settle. For the four officers that, unfortunately, still leaves a whiff of doubt in the air over their actions.

Yes, we understand that fighting lawsuits can run up the city’s legal bill. And, as 8th District Alderman Q.A. Shakoor put it: “True enough, it’s $100,000, but it could go up to 300 (thousand dollars), (a) half million (dollars), who knows? It all depends on what a jury would decide. I don’t think we need to take that chance. I think this is being responsible.”

Perhaps it is.

But, as we said, despite their praise for police, the council and the city did not stand with them here.

What’s perhaps more distressing is that settling a lawsuit — assuming the city is in the right — is often an invitation for more litigation.

Last week, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel chronicled the account of a Green Bay man who had threatened lawsuits against more than 40 companies, and extracted payments of more than $230,000 in legal settlements from some of those companies, after he accused them of violating an obscure provision of the Fair Credit Reporting Act by doing credit checks on him, after he applied for employment, without giving him proper notice.

Lawsuits, and threats of lawsuits, can be cottage industries or chances for opportunists to make some quick money.

It’s distressing as well that in this case the settlement, $100,000, comes before the city’s insurance kicks in, so the entire cost will be borne by taxpayers.

The city may have avoided a bigger payout, but it did so at a cost of not really backing its police officers, leaving a question mark over police practices, and encouraging other lawsuits down the line — in addition to paying out $100,000.

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