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Baltimore might not be able to avoid paying for lawsuits linked to corrupt Gun Trace Task Force squad

Baltimore solicitor Andre Davis declared Wednesday that the city did not intend to pay legal damages that might be awarded in civil actions against the eight police officers recently convicted of corruption. But it’s far from clear whether the city actually can avoid all responsibility.

What responsibility the taxpayer ultimately ends up bearing would be up to judges and juries, legal experts say.

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One thing is clear: The dozens of people expected to file suits stemming from the criminal actions of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force are likely to look for ways to get the city to pay. While it should be straightforward to establish the liability of the officers convicted of federal crimes, experts said, they are unlikely to have many financial assets to pay damages.

Forty-five potential plaintiffs have filed notice of their intent to sue over the gun squad’s actions, though only two lawsuits have been filed to date, according to the solicitor’s office.

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Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis said Wednesday officials do not plan to cover the costs of any lawsuits filed against members of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. 

Davis said Wednesday that the city is arguing in federal court that Baltimore does not have to “indemnify those officers in any amount for what they did.”

"Those officers acted outside the scope of employment, with malice, pursuing their own interests. They were not acting as police officers for Baltimore city,” he argued. He added that the city planned to use the same strategy in future claims, though he said officials would consider each suit to see if there should be an exception.

Davis’ comments drew criticism from people who said the city was trying to shirk its responsibility to the victims of the officers, who kept up a years-long campaign of robbery and intimidation throughout the city and the wider region.

Lawyer A. Dwight Pettit, who frequently represents residents who sue police alleging misconduct, said he and his staff have been having strategy sessions about how to out-manuever the city.

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He said city lawyers are continuing to refuse to pay a $500,000 jury award against former Baltimore police officers who dropped off a teen barefoot in Howard County — using a similar argument that the officers were not acting as police, but as criminals.

“The city is trying to protect themselves but they’re really abandoning the citizens who have been injured,” Pettit said. “We know we’re not going to recover anything from these officers. In general, the officers don’t have anything.”

The case against the task force is among the worst corruption scandals to ever hit the department. Six officers pleaded guilty, with some of them flipping on their former colleagues and helping federal prosecutors secure guilty verdicts against the two who went to trial.

Nancy Modesitt, an employment law professor at the University of Baltimore, said that in typical lawsuits alleging employee negligence it can be easy to establish that the employer is responsible. But in one case filed against the task force officers, Davis has argued that they were operating outside the scope of their employment. Modesitt said that position stands a good chance of holding up.

But she said people bringing lawsuits could make a different kind of claim by alleging that the Police Department itself was negligent in the way that it hired or didn’t fire the officers.

That would require evidence that the department knew that the officers had records of alleged behavior similar to the allegations being made against them in the lawsuit.

“Most employers don’t want to have these kind of problems, so when they find out about it they do something about it,” Modesitt said.

Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, said a plaintiff also could try to bring a federal civil rights claim against the Police Department, arguing that the officers were not properly supervised. Such a suit might name as defendants members of the officers’ chain of command all the way up to the commissioner.

“The question is whether the agency knew there was a high risk that inadequate supervision would carry with it a high risk of constitutional violation,” Stoughton said.

Stoughton said it was too early to say what chances of success plaintiffs might have.

“The chances of success or failure for every individual lawsuit is going to depend on the facts of every individual case,” Stoughton said.

In the case of the Gun Trace Task Force, lawyer Josh Insley said a strong case can be made that the city can’t separate itself from the convicted officers.

“They knew for years that they were putting dangerous people on the street to victimize people,” he said.

City politicians expressed mixed views on whether the city, the officers — or another party, such as the state — should pay for any potential damages awarded to victims.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the city solicitor is working to protect the taxpayers.

"We know that the city solicitor is a well respected mind and is taking this issue seriously,” he said. "Baltimore does not employ officers to rob and harm citizens. They were not operating as members in good standing with the Baltimore city police."

But City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee, argued the city should have to pay something to victims of the task force. He argued the officers also should have to pay up, as should the state of Maryland, since the Baltimore Police Department is technically a state agency.

A Baltimore judge on Thursday ruled in favor of defense attorneys who plan to call former Gun Trace Task Force officers in a 2016 shooting case.

“People were clearly not overseeing the officers the way they should,” he said. “If folks were doing what they needed to do with supervision, this wouldn’t have happened.”

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she took note of the city solicitor’s statement that he would evaluate suits on a case-by-case basis.

“I think there are a lot of very sympathetic cases out there. And just to build good faith between the community and the Police Department and the city, I think the law department is going to have to ... review every claim carefully. We know that it's a dead-end alley to hold the officers responsible in many cases."

City Councilman Zeke Cohen said the city might have to explore plans for setting money aside to pay for claims.

"I think that victims regardless of the crime should be able to access some form of compensation,” he said. “I believe that victims should not be abandoned. That we as a city have a responsibility to them. What that looks like, I think, is the conversation ahead."

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