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Baltimore to pay $42K to whistle-blower former officer who found rat on car

"It was an ugly chapter in the Baltimore Police Department," mayor says of whistleblower's treatment

Baltimore's spending panel approved a $42,000 settlement Wednesday with a former police officer who alleged that the department failed to protect him after he reported misconduct by fellow officers.

The city's Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, awarded the money to Joseph Crystal, who told prosecutors in 2014 he saw fellow officers assault a man. Crystal later resigned after finding a rat on the windshield of his car one morning outside his home, he said.

He contended in a $5 million lawsuit that a hostile workplace environment forced him to leave the agency.

"All parties wanted to put this behind us," Rawlings-Blake said. "It was an ugly chapter in the Baltimore Police Department and something I never want to see happen again."

Crystal, who now works as a special agent for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said Wednesday he was trying to move forward.

"I'm working on my new life," he said.

Former Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts pledged a full investigation into Crystal's allegations. Crystal contended in his suit that "nothing has come of the investigation into what the department did and allowed to continue to happen to plaintiff for whistleblowing police misconduct."

In accepting the settlement money, Crystal released a joint statement Wednesday with the Police Department in which he vouched for Batts.

"The evidence showed that the BPD and Commissioner Batts undertook diligent efforts to protect Officer Crystal professionally and, specifically, to protect his Constitutional rights," the statement says.

The settlement comes as the Police Department is under intense scrutiny. The city has provided more than four years of documents to U.S. Department of Justice investigators, who are nearing the end of a civil rights probe in Baltimore. Allegations include excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests, and unlawful stops, searches or arrests.

The federal intervention started in 2014, just days after The Baltimore Sun reported that the city in recent years had spent millions on court judgments and settlements in 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.

The Justice Department expanded its review into a full civil rights investigation in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody sparked widespread protests and two nights of looting and violence.

In his suit, Crystal contended that he faced retribution from fellow officers after reporting a beating he observed during an October 2011 drug arrest.

During that arrest, officers saw a man throw away what they suspected were drugs and tried to chase him. They later found him hiding in the home of a police officer's girlfriend.

Prosecutors said that after the suspect was handcuffed and put in a wagon to be taken away, police took him back into the house, where an off-duty officer beat him.

After he cooperated with prosecutors, Crystal alleged that other officers refused to back him up on the streets — including one incident during which no one from his unit responded to a call he put out over the radio that he was involved in a foot chase as part of a drug investigation.

Crystal also alleged that a detective once pulled up alongside his police car and asked if he was "having a cheese party. I know rats like cheese." And he said a union official told him he should "look into going to another agency."

City Solicitor George Nilson said Wednesday that he wasn't aware of the department punishing any officers as a result of Crystal's allegations.

"I'm not aware that we uncovered the identity of any of the people who did what Crystal said was done to him, but we tried very hard," Nilson said. "The settlement reflects that effort. The leadership of the Police Department did the right thing."

Nilson said he was confident that the city could have won the case but decided it was better to reach an agreement with Crystal. He said the costs of retrieving police emails during the discovery process "dwarfed the size of the settlement."

"Despite the high degree of confidence that the Baltimore City Police Department and former Commissioner Batts had on the merits, the parties decided it would be more economical to resolve the case through settlement," a memo from city lawyers to the Board of Estimates states. "Therefore, the parties propose to settle the matter for the sum total of $42,000.00 in return for a dismissal of the litigation, plus the issuance of a joint public statement."

Rawlings-Blake said police brass are working hard to encourage an atmosphere in the department where more whistleblowers feel protected if they come forward to report wrongdoing.

"We are working hard to lay a foundation so that they feel comfortable coming forward," the mayor said. "I want people to come forward."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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