Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis has decided that taxpayers should cover the damages that five officers faced paying personally after a jury concluded they acted with malice in a 2013 arrest.
In August, a jury ordered the officers to pay $40,000 in punitive damages in a case involving two men they arrested. Davis had said earlier this week that the city was not required to cover that award but that he was reviewing the case.
On Friday he announced that he has chosen to cover $32,500 of the damages and that the men who sued the officers had agreed not to seek the outstanding amount. The result is that the officers will not be required to pay the damages themselves.
The issue of whether the city will cover punitive damages sparked a fierce battle between Davis and the police officers’ union, which sent an email to its members accusing Davis of changing a long-standing policy. Davis, in turn, noted that the union and the city were involved in litigation and difficult contract talks and said the officers’ union representatives were trying to cause trouble.
Davis’ announcement about the payments eased some of the tension between the two sides.
Lt. Gene Ryan, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, said he was happy with city solicitor’s decision. “I’m glad he changed his mind and reconsidered,” Ryan said. “The fact still remains those five officers in question did absolutely nothing wrong.”
But the issue is not entirely resolved. A union lawyer has said officers in some other cases currently face having to pay such damages. At least one of those cases is being appealed.
Davis and his predecessor confirmed that there had been no policy change, and Davis said Friday that his decision was not related to the union’s criticisms.
“I want to emphasize that my decision in this case is entirely unrelated to the spurious assertions by the Fraternal Order of Police,” he said.
Davis, a former federal judge, has taken the position that guaranteeing to financially back officers ordered to pay damages would be irresponsible.
“The members of our community, like police officers themselves, need to know that the City will not write blank checks to cover police damages, regardless of what a jury finds an officer has done,” Davis said in a written statement. “Such blind indemnification risks enabling behavior that maliciously inflicts harm on those with whom the police come into contact.”
The issue of paying damages arises in cases where a jury finds officers acted with “actual malice” and awards punitive damages. State law doesn’t require the public to pay those damages, leaving the officers personally on the hook.
Ryan said he thinks that judges don’t always give jurors enough help reaching the right decisions but that he has no problem with officers being held responsible when they truly do act maliciously.
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“We’ve had some bad apples, but those are the ones we want to weed out,” he said.
The case in which Davis issued his findings on Friday stems from a jury’s decision in August.
Two men, Leo Joseph Green and James Green, won a verdict against Officers Nicholas Chapman, Daraine Harris, Brian Loiero, Marcus Smothers and Nathan Ulmer. The two civilians had alleged battery, false arrest and violations of constitutional rights in connection with an incident that occurred in Northeast Baltimore in 2013.
The jury called for $147,100 in compensatory damages, which the city has agreed to pay, as well as $40,000 in punitive damages.
After the brief, bitter battle between the city’s lawyers and its police union, both sides now said they want to work on improving their relationship.
“Hopefully in the future I'll have more open lines of communication,” Ryan said
Said Davis: “We invite the FOP to encourage every officer to buy into the important quest for reform under federal court supervision, and to diligently perform their duties to protect and serve the people of Baltimore in accordance with the Constitution.”