'Singing cop' settles dispute for $200,000 Baltimore police fought 10-year battle


Bobby Berger, the "singing cop" who successfully fought being fired for performing an off-duty act in which he donned blackface and impersonated Al Jolson, has settled the last in a decade of legal fights with the Baltimore Police Department for $200,000, his attorney said yesterday.

Mr. Berger also will be paid until he reaches full retirement at the end of next year. But he will never have to walk the beat again.

Under the settlement, Mr. Berger gets the cash -- he picked up his check Monday -- and he will be placed on paid leave. In return, he will drop two civil suits charging the department with attempting to harass him into retirement.

Attempts to reach Mr. Berger yesterday were unsuccessful, but his attorney, Michael L. Marshall, said Mr. Berger "wanted to reconcile and get back together, but the department wanted a divorce."

"All the guy ever wanted to do was be a police officer and do his performances, and there was no reason he couldn't do both," Mr. Marshall added. "He's accepted the fact that he's never going to be a police officer there."

In the suits, Mr. Berger, 43, accused city police officials of refusing to comply with court orders to reinstate him as a police officer. He cited being given "menial" work as a supply officer. Three weeks before the suit was scheduled to go to trial, he was assigned to a foot patrol beat at North and Greenmount avenues.

"So they give him one of the dirtiest, meanest posts around," Mr. Marshall said.

In court papers, the Police Department denied harassing Mr. Berger. Otho M. Thompson, the associate city solicitor who handled the case, refused to comment on the terms of the settlement.

Since 1981, Mr. Berger and police officials have squabbled over his appearances in off-duty musical reviews. As part of his shows, Mr. Berger impersonates Al Jolson, a white entertainer in the 1920s, '30s and '40s who is best known for his blackface rendition of "Mammy" in "The Jazz Singer," the first talking film.

In 1982, one of Mr. Berger's scheduled performances at a downtown hotel led to protests by the NAACP. Two months later, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Berger sued the Police Department, charging that department orders for him to stop performing in blackface in public violated his right to free speech. Mr. Berger lost in court and was fired in 1984.

A year later, a federal appeals court ruled in Mr. Berger's favor. When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, a federal District Court ordered the department to rehire Mr. Berger. The court also awarded him more than $108,000 in back pay, legal fees and compensation for humiliation and stress.

After rejoining the force in 1986, Mr. Berger was given a desk but no gun, no badge and nothing to do, according to a civil rights suit filed in 1989 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

"He was told to relax and accept being paid for nothing," according to the suit.

Police officials also ordered Mr. Berger to undergo psychological evaluations, which concluded he was unfit for police duty. Mr. Berger claimed the exams were cursory and part of a pattern of harassment.

He was placed on paid medical leave from December 1986 to January 1989, when he was fired again, this time for "unsatisfactory performance," according to court records. Seven months later he was back on the force at the order of a Baltimore Circuit Court judge.

"I think it's pretty clear he was harassed," said Mr. Marshall. "The question was: What was the harassment worth? This is the figure we settled on."

Mr. Berger will be paid until the end of 1992, which will mark 20 years on the force and make him eligible for full retirement benefits. Officers with 15 to 20 years' experience are paid $34,034 a year, said Ed Ambrose, fiscal supervisor for the Police Department.

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