Baltimore doesn't plan to pay victims who sue police convicted in gun task force case, solicitor says

Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis said Wednesday that city officials do not plan to cover any costs or damages arising out of civil lawsuits filed against convicted police officers who were members of the Gun Trace Task Force.

The corrupt officers, he said, are on their own.

Dozens of state and federal lawsuits are expected against the eight task force members who were convicted of various federal crimes, including racketeering and robbery. Six pleaded guilty, while two were convicted at trial this week.

In one of the first federal lawsuits, filed by Ivan Potts in 2016 against the city and three of the officers, city government lawyers are arguing that taxpayers should not be responsible for potential damages.

“Each and every one of the wrongs ... were committed outside of the scope of the officers’ employment as BPD law enforcement officers and in pursuit of said officers’ private and personal interests,” city government lawyers wrote in a filing last month.

Davis said Wednesday that this is a strategy the city plans to use going forward with other actions, though he said officials would consider each suit to see if there should be an exception. And in some cases, a judge could order the city to pay.

“We have sought a judgment that the police department does not have to indemnify those officers in any amount for what they did,” Davis said. “Those officers acted outside the scope of employment, with malice, pursuing their own interests. They were not acting as police officers for Baltimore city.”

While the move could save the city millions of dollars, plaintiffs lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union argued victims could be deprived of much-needed compensation.

“That is a travesty,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “The city bears significant responsibility for enabling these crimes by its failure to adequately supervise the officers. It can’t now simply wash its hands of the matter.”

Rocah said he supports the city’s view that officers should have to pay for their own punitive damages — which are meant as punishment — but not compensatory damages, which are used to address pain and suffering.

“The city is not absolved of responsibility here,” Rocah said. “In this case, many of the illegal acts the officers were engaged in were done on duty.”

Attorney Michael Glass, who has two clients suing the gun unit officers, said the officers’ behavior was a “pervasive problem.”

“It does appear that there was knowledge on the part of the police department, and there was a looking the other way and it was allowed to happen,” Glass said. “I would absolutely disagree with Mr. Davis that the police department is absolved, even if there was malicious intentional conduct among the officers.”

Potts alleges in his federal lawsuit that the Gun Trace Task Force officers beat him and planted a gun on him. He was released from an eight-year prison sentence last year after the officers were accused of robbing citizens, lying on police reports and claiming bogus overtime pay.

Davis said about 45 civil claims are pending against the officers. The law department will refuse to indemnify the officers, he said.

“That’s the position we expect to take in every case in which the police department or the city are sued,” Davis said.

Davis has sparred with the police union in recent weeks over when and in which cases the city will cover damages juries award against police officers.

The union has accused Davis of changing city policy to cover fewer officers in cases in which juries find the police acted with malice. Davis and his predecessor have said there has been no change in policy and he accused the union of stirring up discord among the rank-and-file.

Davis’ comments came as Mayor Catherine E. Pugh held a news conference to tout progress she said the police department is making.

Violent crime is down by 27 percent to start 2018 compared with the same period last year. Homicides are down by 37 percent and shootings by 44 percent.

“We’re trending in the right direction,” Pugh said.

She credited acting Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa’s “blitz” policing strategy, her Violence Reduction Initiative zones, and the community-led Ceasefire movement as contributing to the reduction in crime.

In a related matter, Davis said an audit of police overtime is continuing and cannot be released until it is introduced into evidence as part of a federal lawsuit.

In a lawsuit filed in 2016, Baltimore’s police union alleges a widespread practice of underpayment of overtime for officers.

The lawsuit claims that the city has been miscalculating overtime rates for officers for at least three years — a time period during which police overtime has spiked as staffing has been reduced and violent crime has risen.

Davis didn’t predict when the audit would be completed or entered into the court file.

When Pugh announced the audit nearly a year ago, she said she wanted it completed “as soon as possible.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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