$4.5 million to a gangster?

It is natural that some members of the Los Angeles City Council are flinching at being asked to pay $4.5 million to Robert Contreras, a gang member who committed a drive-by shooting, then fled police in a failed attempt to elude capture, only to end up shot and crippled. In a city that is scraping to preserve services through this economic downturn, it is a bitter pill indeed to pay off a gangster.

Yet pay him off the council should. This is ground the city has covered many times before, and though it’s never pleasant, it’s a reminder that the actions of police officers are sometimes costly, and there’s no way to avoid paying that price.

Contreras was a gang member up to no good on a September night in 2005 when he ran from the police, but the officers that night failed as well, shooting Contreras when they believed he was turning on them with a gun. It was a cellphone, and Contreras ended up paralyzed.

Yes, it is Contreras’ actions that started the chain of events that left him crippled. For those criminal actions, Contreras went to prison, as he deserved to. But a separate jury ruled that the officers were wrong to shoot him, and awarded him $4.5 million for his injuries. The city can settle now or appeal and risk paying him much more.


Critics of the payout are irritated that the jury was not told of Contreras’ crimes before it decided whether he deserved compensation. But those facts were not germane. His arrest and prison term were the consequences of his crimes; his lifetime of paralysis is the consequence of the officers’ mistakes, at least in the eyes of the jury.

The understandable reluctance to reward Contreras in one sense parallels the unsatisfying resolution that occurs when police officers conduct a search without a warrant. They may find guns or drugs that amply implicate a suspect in a crime but be forced to let the suspect go when the search proves inadmissible in court. Why should a guilty suspect go free just because police officers misbehaved?

The answer is that police need incentives to perform well. If they can violate a suspect’s rights or shoot an unarmed man, there must be a price to pay. If not, they’ll do so with impunity. Sadly, it’s the city that pays the bill.