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 A police officer guards a crime scene in Chicago, 2013. - 

Cities across the country have paid out large sums for police misconduct lawsuits. Chicago, for one, paid out more than half a billion dollars over 10 years. However, many cities have not taken a step that seems like common sense: Looking for data that could help them avoid future lawsuits. 

Police liability is Lou Reiter’s turf. He’s a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who trains police officials on “liability management,” and he’s been an expert witness for both plaintiffs and police departments in misconduct cases.

He says police departments rarely ask themselves: What could we have done to avoid this lawsuit?

"Most departments that I’m familiar with simply say, 'Oh it’s that wishy-washy court,'" he says. "Or: 'They don’t understand our problems. We’re not doing anything wrong.'"

So, they don’t ask, for instance:  Is there one group of officers who are getting us into trouble?

In Chicago, law professor Craig Futterman found the answer to that was "yes."

Futterman, who runs the University of Chicago's Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, has won some cases against police. For one such case, he got the numbers on whether some officers had an unusually-high number of complaints against them.

As it turned out, a relative handful accounted for almost half of all complaints, and they were almost never disciplined.

"There’s a small percent who have been allowed to just do this with darn near impunity," he says. "Despite the bills racking up, and despite all the complaints."  

He also found that the Chicago Police Department had never run the numbers to identify those officers.

UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz says this is not unusual. In fact, she says, Chicago keeps better records than a lot of places.

For one study, Schwartz asked 140 law-enforcement agencies — including 70 of the biggest ones —  for information about police-misconduct cases. A common answer: We don’t know.

So, she asked the law departments, everybody. Which didn’t always help.

"Eighteen of the largest cities and counties," she says, "and these are cities that include San Diego, New Orleans— counties like Harris County, Baltimore County— they reported that they had no records in any government agency or office reflecting how much they spent in lawsuits involving the police."

One might think they would want to know: What do we even get sued for?  

"You would think," says Schwartz. "And in other kinds of industries— certainly in medicine— there are risk managers who are tasked with doing that very thing."

She thinks if settlements came out of the police budget —  instead of the general fund — departments might be more cost-sensitive.

Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann