Residents of northeast Ohio are growing accustomed to the variety of infrastructure and beautification projects currently underway in the Cleveland area to prepare the city for the Republican National Convention (“RNC”) in July 2016. One of the most important projects has flown under the radar, however: the city’s plan to secure extra insurance coverage for the activities of its safety forces.        

Cleveland’s interest in purchasing insurance coverage can be explained by reviewing the recent experiences of cities hosting major political conventions. The 2008 RNC, hosted by St. Paul, Minnesota, resulted in approximately 800 arrests for a variety of civil disobedience; the 2004 RNC, in New York City, produced approximately 1,800. Unsurprisingly, these arrests produced a flood of civil-rights lawsuits against each city. In the four years after it hosted the RNC, New York City paid over $8 million in damages and costs; the city eventually reached a settlement with thousands of other claimants in January 2014 for a cool $17.9 million. Large legal bills after national political conventions appear to be a bipartisan issue: as of 2012, Los Angeles had paid over $5 million in lawsuits related to its hosting of the 2000 Democratic National Convention (“DNC”).

As a result of these events, cities have begun securing additional insurance coverage to protect themselves from liability related to the actions of their police, fire, and other safety departments. These policies are sometimes referred to as “protest insurance,” since the damages they cover typically occur as the result of activities during protests or against protesters. St. Paul was the first host city to purchase protest insurance, for the 2008 RNC. For a premium of $1.2 million, the city secured a policy which would pay up to $10 million in damages and unlimited legal expenses. The city of Charlotte, North Carolina purchased a similar policy for the 2012 DNC.  Details of the policy Cleveland intends to purchase are not yet available.

Despite their clear benefits to host cities, protest insurance policies are not without controversy. One of the biggest areas of concern for taxpayers is who will foot the bill for the policies, which carry significant premiums. St. Paul’s premiums were paid by the city’s host committee. St. Paul was in a particularly strong bargaining position, however, because the Republican National Committee announced that St. Paul was selected as the host city before negotiating the terms of the deal with the city. Other cities, including Tampa for the 2012 RNC and Charlotte for the 2012 DNC, paid the premium using funds from security grants provided to the host cities by the federal government.

Another criticism of protest insurance policies is that by insulating officers from liability, the policies may actually make them more likely to engage in the types of impermissible conduct covered by the policies. There is some anecdotal evidence against this argument, however: as of late 2011, three years after St. Paul hosted the RNC, the city had paid approximately $300,000 in damages for lawsuits related to police actions during the RNC. That figure is much lower than the damages paid out by previous hosts such as New York City and Los Angeles, despite the fact that St. Paul was the first host city to purchase protest insurance. This criticism is also dependent on the language of the policy: for instance, the policy may not extend coverage to officers if they are sued as individuals in an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In that instance, officers would still be motivated to refrain from impermissible conduct if they know they are outside of the policy’s coverage.

Protest insurance offers significant benefits, and potential drawbacks, to cities hosting major national and international events. Cleveland’s plan to purchase protest insurance for the 2016 RNC appears to be in line with the growing trend of cities embracing such policies.