An escalating number of lawsuits filed against Baltimore police officers has exhausted the department's budget for hiring outside law firms, and officials are asking the city for an additional $750,000 to cover expenses.

City and private lawyers could not explain the surge, in which 15 lawsuits seeking $67 million in damages have been filed against officers this year.

Seventy-five civil suits seeking $1.8 billion are pending against the department.

"Officers in many cases wind up going to full trials," said Gary May, chief legal counsel for the Police Department. "Even though we win a vast majority of the cases, they are costly."

The Board of Estimates deferred the request Tuesday but may take it up this week. The Police Department had budgeted $339,000 this fiscal year to hire lawyers from four law firms to represent officers who cannot be represented by city attorneys because of conflicts of interest.

People who sue most often name the police commissioner, mayor and City Council, with the officer, as defendants.

May said the officer's defense is often at odds with that of city officials, requiring separate representation.

Robert Verderaime, who represents many city officers, said the charges in the suits range from accusations of false arrest to brutality. Many times, he said, a person will sue for false arrest after he or she is found not guilty or the charges have been dropped.

"We have been pretty fortunate in that the verdicts are primarily on behalf of the officers," Verderaime said. "I can go for a couple of months and no new lawsuit comes in. Then I get two or three in a month. I haven't found a pattern to tell me why."

One of the biggest recent awards against the Police Department was made in July, when a jury awarded nearly $2.1 million to the family of an 18-year-old college student who was killed in a collision with a speeding city police cruiser. But state law could reduce the award to $40,000.

In October, a jury in Baltimore Circuit Court found a city police officer was unjustified in shooting a 25-year-old man in a dark alley two years ago and awarded the man's family $111,000 in damages.

A multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed in July against Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto and the city is pending. Pagotto has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison in the on-duty fatal shooting of Preston E. Barnes.

The lawyers who represent officers who cannot be represented by the city are Verderaime & Dubois, Paul Shelton of Piper & Marbury, Eileen A. Carpenter of Baltimore and Bernadette Gartrell of Silver Spring.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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