Baltimore officials will begin this month posting the outcomes of all civil lawsuits alleging police brutality and will reconsider their policy of requiring plaintiffs to keep silent after settlements are reached — part of a series of changes made in response to a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation of police misconduct.
City Solicitor George Nilson, who enacted the new policy regarding police settlements and court judgments, said officials also would seek to provide increased training for officers who are most often cited in lawsuits. The moves would give the public more information about the lawsuits, he said Thursday, adding, "I want to end the thinking that we're hiding the ball, because we're not."
Nilson said the moves were made in response to The Sun investigation, which showed the city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. The U.S. Justice Department has since begun a review of the Baltimore Police Department. The investigation revealed that police leaders, city attorneys and other top officials were not keeping track of officers who repeatedly faced such allegations. Meanwhile, judges or prosecutors cleared nearly all of those alleging misconduct of criminal charges in the incidents that led to the lawsuits with the highest payouts.
The Sun's investigation also showed that city policies helped shield the scope and impact of alleged police brutality from the public. For example, settlement agreements include a clause that prohibits injured residents from making any public statement — or talking to the news media — about the incidents.
After the investigation was published, some members of the City Council said they weren't aware the problem was so widespread.
Some prominent area defense attorneys said Thursday that the nondisclosure clause included in settlement agreements should be eliminated. Someone who violates that clause risks losing part of the monetary settlement. Last month, for example, the city withheld $31,500 from a woman who had posted online comments about an incident; that was about half of her settlement.
A. Dwight Pettit, who frequently represents plaintiffs in lawsuits against police officers, says it appears the city is trying to be more transparent, but he questioned the substance of the changes. The city needs to eliminate the nondisclosure clauses, he said.
"That's a suppression of First Amendment rights," he said. "I don't see any reason for that. That's continued intimidation."
Bryan A. Levitt, who also has represented plaintiffs in such lawsuits, agreed.
"That would be real transparency in government," he said. "There is no reason to keep it a secret. The only reason to do so is self-serving. It establishes a wall between the public and public servants."
Nilson said the online database, which will note the outcome of lawsuits as court decisions and settlements are reached, will allow the public to have a fuller understanding of how often the city wins or loses cases. The database will not include cases already settled, but their outcomes will be available upon request, he added.
In about 70 percent of such lawsuits, the city wins or settles for less than $10,000, he said.
"I'm proud of our record, frankly," Nilson said. "I intend to make sure our wins are robustly posted."
The database will contain summaries of excessive-force lawsuits, similar to the information presented to the Board of Estimates. Some have criticized those summaries because they often omit accusations of police brutality, but city officials argue that many allegations are unfounded.
The city spending panel, controlled by the mayor, must approve all expenditures greater than $25,000. The excessive-force database will include all cases, no matter the size of the settlement, Nilson said.
As part of the new policy, Nilson said, a representative of the Police Department will be invited to attend meetings at which city lawyers discuss whether to settle a case, and officers in need of further training will meet one-on-one with city lawyers.
One example of a "teachable moment," he said, might be the case of an officer who doesn't buckle in a suspect while being transported, then gets in an accident, injuring the suspect. Or an officer who tries to move an injured man without calling for medical help. City lawyers can offer advice on ways to avoid lawsuits, he said.
Nilson said city lawyers would also research nondisclosure clauses in other cities to see whether Baltimore's policies are "fair and consistent with best practices."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she has pushed to make Baltimore's government more transparent since taking office in 2010, including creating the Open Baltimore website, where city salaries, liquor licenses, crime data and other sets of information are routinely posted.
"I was really perplexed that so many elected officials said they had no idea the city has been making these settlements," Rawlings-Blake said. "I want to make sure the public and elected officials have this information. Now there's no excuse for not knowing."
The issue of police brutality has been a prominent topic in the city recently.
On Monday, the City Council overwhelmingly gave preliminary approval to a bill to require all of Baltimore's nearly 3,000 police officers to wear body cameras — despite arguments from the mayor's office that the bill is illegal.
City Councilman Warren Branch, the lead sponsor of the two-page bill, said residents of his district repeatedly asked him to have police wear the cameras to cut down on brutality. As reasons for the proposed law, he has cited questions surrounding the in-custody death last year of Tyrone West and a recent video showing an officer repeatedly punching a suspect, among other cases.
In October, Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts presented a plan to reduce police brutality, calling for increased staff in the Internal Affairs Division, which handles allegations of misconduct, and giving Batts wider authority to quickly punish rogue officers. The plan included the creation of a task force to study the implementation of body cameras.
The Justice Department is in the early stages of conducting its review of the department, an examination made at the request of the mayor and police commissioner.