Here's the best case that can be made for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's surprise announcement that her administration would propose a $6.4 million settlement of all potential civil claims in the death of Freddie Gray: It might have prevented a riot. Announcing it just two days before a judge is to hear arguments on whether the criminal trials of the six officers involved in Gray's arrest should be moved out of the city gives it the potential to calm any tensions that were brewing. But it nonetheless also carries real risk for the city in terms of setting precedents for future cases, changing the course of the criminal trials and affecting public safety in the city more generally.
The settlement appears on first blush to be an eye-popping amount — more than the city's combined total payouts in police misconduct cases since 2011, and 16 times the cap for damages for such cases in state courts. Nonetheless, it might also have been a great deal for the city. The Gray family could have pursued the matter in federal court, where such caps don't apply and judgments can reach into the scores of millions of dollars. To hold the city accountable under the applicable federal statute, the Gray family's attorneys would have to prove not only that the officers' actions or inaction caused Gray's injuries but that they reflected the policy or custom of the Baltimore Police Department. Given that the U.S. Justice Department is presently investigating — at the mayor's request — whether Baltimore police engage in a pattern and practice of civil rights violations, the city might well have figured that the Gray family's chances at a mega-verdict, should the case go to trial, were unusually high.
Yet, even if offering a settlement that is 114 times larger than Baltimore's most recent wrongful death settlement could be construed as prudent in the Gray case, we wonder what precedent it will set. The city is essentially conceding a vulnerability under federal civil rights law. Does that make settlements of this size the new normal, or does this kind of treatment of a death only apply to cases that lead to massive media coverage and civil unrest? Either answer could prove dangerous for the city.
But the bigger question may be what this means for the criminal cases against the six officers. In a statement today , Mayor Rawlings-Blake took pains to assert that the settlement "expressly does not constitute an admission of liability." Such disclaimers are standard when the city pays out settlements, but this case is clearly being handled differently from others. Why? Is it because the city's attorneys have judged the facts in this case, many of which are still not publicly known, to be particularly damning? Or is it because they believe a Baltimore jury would be hopelessly biased against the city?
Despite the mayor's insistence that the settlement "has nothing whatsoever to do with the criminal proceedings now underway," it is hard to imagine that it won't have an impact on them. The timing all but guarantees it. The Board of Estimates is scheduled to vote on the matter the day before Judge Barry Williams is set to hear arguments about whether the officers' trials should be moved out of Baltimore.
We didn't see any reason for him to grant that request before the settlement, and we still see no reason for him to do so now. But there is at least the risk that a settlement that appears timed to decrease the likelihood of riots if Judge Williams changes the venue in fact makes it more likely that he will. If nothing else, it gives the defense attorneys one more argument to make on Thursday .
Even if this settlement helps Baltimore through a potential flash point this week, we face many more to come. The settlement is a card that can only be played once, and it may have the side effect of hindering the city's response if some other event sparks unrest. Baltimore police officers have been complaining for the last few months about feeling unsupported by the command staff and City Hall, and the unusual nature of this settlement, coming as it does just as the mayor's race is starting to heat up, is bound to exacerbate complaints that the mayor is selling them out. That's the last thing Baltimore needs as it grapples with a historic spike in shootings and homicides.
We don't begrudge the Gray family a measure of justice for the loss it suffered. Nor do we take lightly the risk that the city could tip back into violence and destruction based on what happens in the criminal trials against the six officers. After a long and bloody summer, tension clearly remains just below the surface. To the extent that this settlement is a signal to Baltimoreans that the city is taking seriously its obligation to justice for Freddie Gray, it could prove a good thing. But it is at best a palliative, not a cure for the underlying problems that were exposed by April's riots.
Fairly compensating the Gray family for its loss is necessary, no doubt. So are vigorous and fair trials for the six officers. But the most important component of justice may be getting at the root causes of Baltimore's unrest and the reasons why Freddie Gray's death resonated so widely in the first place. When Mayor Rawlings-Blake takes questions about the settlement tomorrow , we expect she will discuss it in the context of the first two, but if she wants to keep the peace not just this week but into the future, she needs to talk much more about the third.