The Baltimore Police Department has agreed to hire a consultant to monitor its internal disciplinary process for the next three years under the terms of a multimillion-dollar settlement in a lawsuit that alleged institutional race discrimination.
Word of the settlement came Monday, as police announced that they had dismissed internal charges against about 40 officers accused of wrongdoing as a result of an unrelated audit. The move returns those officers to the streets, continuing the fallout from the April firing of the department's in-house prosecutor, whom the police union has accused of manipulating documents.
Although the developments were separate, observers say they both relate to claims of unequal treatment of officers, for racial and political reasons.
Police officials said both moves will address concerns about the agency's internal processes and will help the department move forward. But critics say Monday's news shows that the department continues to struggle to police itself despite several previous attempts at reform.
The lawsuit settlement, which must first be approved by the Board of Estimates this week, will cost taxpayers about $4.5 million, including a $2.5 million total payout to 15 plaintiffs who contend that black officers were punished more harshly than their white counterparts. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in 2004.
"The commissioner is pleased to resolve this five-year-old lawsuit," said Anthony Guglielmi, the Police Department's chief spokesman. "The department strives to provide fair and equal treatment in its disciplinary process, and the measures agreed to within the settlement will provide us with additional tools to ensure all officers receive equal disciplinary treatment."
Peter D. Isakoff, an attorney for the lead plaintiff, Sgt. Louis H. Hopson Jr., declined to comment until the Board of Estimates approves the settlement. The plaintiffs, who unsuccessfully sought class action status for the lawsuit, had accused the department of condoning a hostile workplace, blocking black officers from promotion, levying uneven discipline and retaliating against officers who spoke out against discrimination.
Guglielmi said that under the terms of the settlement, the department will hire an "experienced outside consultant" for three years starting in July 2010 to help the department evaluate disciplinary activity.
The consultant, who will be appointed jointly by the plaintiffs and police department with a tie-breaking vote likely going to former state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, will have access to department data and the ability to act as a troubleshooter for officers with concerns, according to those familiar with the settlement. The consultant will evaluate disciplinary data and make biannual reports to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.
City Solicitor George A. Nilson said that the lawsuit revealed that the Police Department does not keep disciplinary data in a way that "is usable and retrievable," and the settlement requires the department to upgrade hardware and software to improve its recordkeeping.
In addition, the suit requires the department to send 25 minority or female officers to a leadership training program course at the University of Maryland, University College, for the next five years and mandates that the internal charging committee include minority representation reflective of the department's makeup.
Nilson said that continuing to fight the lawsuit would have cost $6 million in legal fees to hire outside counsel and specialists to retrieve data, plus $8 million to $10 million to reimburse the plaintiffs' attorney fees if the city had lost. The city spent at least $1.3 million in legal fees, according to a June 2008 Baltimore Sun article.
Mayor Sheila Dixon believes the disciplinary issues raised in the Hopson case have been addressed by the current police commissioner, Nilson said. "We are closing a book in a constructive way on a previous chapter," Nilson said.
Still, Monday's move to drop 38 more internal charges against police officers raises questions about whether problems persist in the disciplinary process.
A total of 50 cases have now been dropped because of "administrative" issues, not problems with the charges themselves, Guglielmi said. He did not disclose which officers were cleared or what they had been charged with.
In April, the department's prosecutor for internal disciplinary cases, JoAnn C. Woodson-Branche, was fired. Union officials and defense attorneys say she was signing documents required to be signed by the charging committee and backdating documents after the period to file charges had expired. Woodson-Branche has not responded to the allegations.
Among the cases dropped in the first wave were charges brought against two white officers who were accused of forcing a black sergeant to view racist Web sites. A city councilman and the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP had publicly urged police officials not to bungle the case, but the department now says it was among those in which charging documents were manipulated. One of the white officers has since been promoted.
Guglielmi said the 38 cases that have been tossed out were among 64 pending cases. Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police's Fraternal Order of Police union, has called for all cases to be thrown out and said that the union will likely file legal motions to challenge those that remain.
The issue of equal treatment in the Baltimore Police Department has prompted numerous lawsuits and several attempts at reform, including a 1998 finding by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the department had violated civil rights laws by more harshly punishing black officers and retaliating against those who complained.
In 2000, several black officers were given their jobs back in an effort to rectify inequities in punishment, though the department said those officers deserved to lose their jobs and the issue was with white officers who hadn't been held to the same standard.
Hopson, the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, was charged internally with perjury and fired in 1996, but a city Circuit Court judge reversed the termination. Hopson works at the juvenile booking center and is barred from making arrests and testifying in court. He could not be reached for comment Monday.
For years, he has spoken out about his concerns that black officers were treated differently than white officers.
The number of African-American officers has grown over the years, along with a push to hire more Hispanic officers. The number of sworn black officers is 44 percent, up from 43 percent in 2004 and 38 percent in 1999. Overall, minorities make up half of the department's sworn officers, according to police statistics.
At the top level, minorities and women make up roughly half of command staff positions. Maj. Melvin Russell, who is now commander of the city's Eastern District, was among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
"We're excited" about the settlement, said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the local NAACP. "It's clear, and has been clear for a significant period of time, that there were definitely problems within the department. We're just saddened that the city took this much time fighting."