The city's Board of Estimates approved paying $6 million yesterday to a man paralyzed during a 1997 arrest by Baltimore police, but not before City Council President Sheila Dixon raised questions about why the officers involved in the incident were never disciplined.
"It's my understanding that nothing happened to these officers," Dixon said. "It sends a message that police officers can do what they want to do."
The three officers involved in the Nov. 3, 1997, traffic stop of Jeffrey Adrian Alston are still employed by the Police Department and have never faced criminal or administrative charges.
A civil jury ruled in June that the city should pay Alston $39 million for the extensive injuries he suffered when he was taken into custody after police suspected he had been drinking and driving.
The jury found that Baltimore police Sgt. Lewis Yamin and Officer Mark Warble caused the neck injuries that rendered Alston a quadriplegic. Agent Michael Gentile was found to have acted with malice and negligence during the arrest but was not held liable for the injuries.
The officers contended that Alston freed himself from a seat belt in a police van and repeatedly rammed his head into a plastic window that separates police from passengers.
During the trial, a trauma surgeon ruled out that contention. In his lawsuit, filed in 1998, Alston alleged that three officers arrived at the scene of the incident in the 4800 block of Reisterstown Road and that he "was handcuffed, put in leg irons, strip searched, put in a headlock/choke hold and then thrown head first" into the back of a police van.
Jonathan Schochor, Alston's attorney, praised Dixon for raising questions about why the officers were never disciplined.
"The jury fully understood what these police officers did to him," Schochor said. "The jury ... gave him an award which is significant but which cannot replace the quality of life that was destroyed permanently."
Alston, 39, receives around-the-clock care at an Ellicott City nursing home.
The $6 million settlement did not surprise legal observers who said Alston could have lost the $39 million award upon appeal.
Although the officers were never proved to have done anything criminal, City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said, "something needed to be done to improve [Alston's] quality of life."
Mayor Martin O'Malley said the level of proof in a civil case is far less than the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in criminal cases.
"I absolutely agree that we have to constantly improve the manner by which we police our own police department," O'Malley said.