Over a year after the murder of George Floyd, America still hasn’t figured out the structural reforms necessary to prevent such police abuses from happening in the future. Much of the debate around law enforcement reform has so far centered around calls to defund the police. But there is another potential solution that has attracted less attention but is still worth considering: requiring police officers to have liability insurance.
The idea is simple enough. Just like doctors, cops would have to carry liability insurance to cover the costs of settlements and judgments if they got sued. Similar to other forms of insurance, police officers that engaged in bad behavior would see higher premiums. This would create a strong financial disincentive against engaging in police misconduct and repeat offenders would eventually be priced out. For example, Derek Chauvin had 18 complaints on his record including two that resulted in discipline. He had also been involved in three shootings, one of which was fatal. If Chauvin had liability insurance, he probably would have been priced out of policing long before he killed George Floyd. As an added bonus, municipalities would no longer spend millions of taxpayer dollars on settlements for the victims of police brutality.
It sounds great on paper; perhaps this private sector, market-based solution could cut through all the red tape and politics that’s made it difficult to hold police accountable in the past. The thing is: it’s never actually been tried before. However, the idea is poised to get its first experiment. Last summer, Colorado passed a somewhat similar policy with the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act. Police officers in Colorado can no longer claim qualified immunity in excessive force cases and they can be on the hook for up to $25,000 in damages.
Enter Prymus Insurance, a small insurance company based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Prymus specializes in niche insurance policies, and it’s currently working on a first-of-its-kind liability insurance product for police officers. “I didn’t even know Colorado was doing what they were doing when we started going down this road,” Prymus CEO Jeff Harrison told the Signal. “I just looked at it from the standpoint of ‘how come police officers don’t pay anything when they take away someone’s constitutional rights?’ It just defies any logic.”
Then Colorado created an opportunity for Prymus to put their idea in action, and Harrison has been in contact with Colorado lawmakers, municipal governments, and police associations about making police liability insurance a reality. One surprising twist is that police unions, who are often roadblocks in the way of reform, have expressed enthusiasm about liability insurance. “The unions in Colorado, they want it,” said Harrison.”And I talked with unions, even in other states, that haven’t even passed anything, they haven’t got rid of qualified immunity, they haven’t put a stake in the ground to say how much they are going to be liable for, nothing. And they all want our policy as well.” Prymus is even partnering with the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest law enforcement association, to provide their insurance policy as part of dues.
Prymus is also planning on creating carrots in addition to sticks in their insurance policies. Not only would police misconduct be punished with higher premiums, police could also be rewarded with lower premiums if they did things like take de-escalation training or carry BolaWraps.
However, creating liability insurance for police is a challenging process given that it hasn’t been done before. One particularly difficult aspect is getting the data for risk assessment. “The hurdle that we have is knowing when a police officer does something like get reprimanded,” said Harrison. “There’s no great central data for this as of right now.” Harrison did say that recent reforms have made it easier to access data on policing and that Prymus was talking with former law enforcement professionals and advocacy groups in order to get the expertise needed to interpret the data. In an ideal world, Harrison would like the public to be able to contact insurance companies to report police misconduct. Action from lawmakers is also needed to ensure that risk assessment can be conducted. “There wasn’t anything in the law that said all this data needs to be accessible to the insurance industry,” said Harrison. “So we’re going to have to get some of that passed.”
Although Prymus has been working on a police liability insurance product for over a year, it’s still a work in progress. But in spite of the challenges, Harrison expressed confidence that they could figure it out relatively quickly. “A lot of people compare this to malpractice insurance for doctors,” he said. “Medical malpractice hasn’t been around that long and the industry around it to get the data and know what’s going on is not really that old.”
Colorado will provide a testing ground for police liability insurance once Prymus’ product becomes available. Should it prove effective, it could quickly spread elsewhere. “I feel very confident that this is going to go across the country,” said Harrison. States like New York and California have already expressed interest in the idea. Perhaps one day it could make its way to Texas too.