Baltimore Sun's reporter Yvonne Wenger reports that the mayor's administration plans to pay Freddie Gray's family $6.4 million as a settlement for civil claims in his arrest and death. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's decision to pay Freddie Gray's family a $6.4 million civil settlement drew praise and criticism Tuesday, with some Baltimore leaders saying the move will help heal the city and others calling it premature.
Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the settlement — expected to be approved Wednesday by the city's spending panel — was a "very positive development for the city."
"The mayor and her staff are trying to do all they can to heal the wounds in the community, and this is a step in the right direction," said Schmoke, president of the University of Baltimore. "This settlement will give some people in the community at least some sense of justice."
Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, rejected the idea that the settlement could help bring peace to the city. Baltimore will be calm when there is "justice for Freddie Gray," he said. That means "trials, well reported, well attended, and decisions that were well reasoned as a result. I am not seeing any signs out there saying, 'Freddie Gray's family needs a payday.' I see signs that say, 'Justice for Freddie Gray.'"
Anderson said that he's not opposed to Gray's family being compensated, but that it's too early to know what amount is appropriate. "I am not sure how much time the city law department has had to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the case against the city when no case has even been filed," he said.
Under the proposed settlement, the city is accepting all civil liability in the April arrest and death of the 25-year-old Gray, who suffered a spinal injury while in police custody. The city does not acknowledge any wrongdoing by police, according to a statement from Rawlings-Blake.
"The proposed settlement agreement going before the Board of Estimates should not be interpreted as a judgment on the guilt or innocence of the officers facing trial," her statement said. "This settlement is being proposed solely because it is in the best interest of the city, and avoids costly and protracted litigation that would only make it more difficult for our city to heal and potentially cost taxpayers many millions more in damages."
The Gray settlement exceeds the combined total of more than 120 other lawsuits brought against Baltimore police for alleged brutality and misconduct since 2011. State law generally caps such payments, but local officials can authorize larger awards.
The mayor's office declined to answer questions about the settlement, including why it was brought to the spending panel before any civil lawsuit was filed and how the payment amount was reached.
Gray's death triggered days of massive protests across Baltimore, and in the hours after his funeral, the city erupted into rioting, arson and looting. The National Guard was called in to help restore order, and a citywide curfew was put in place.
Six officers involved in Gray's arrest and transport in a police van have been charged with crimes ranging from murder to assault; all have pleaded not guilty. At a pretrial hearing Thursday, a judge is scheduled to hear arguments on whether to move the cases out of Baltimore; defense attorneys say the officers cannot get a fair trial here because of the publicity surrounding the case.
William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., the lawyer representing Gray's family, declined to comment on the settlement. A spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby also had no comment.
A claim for compensation was brought by Gray's estate, including Freddie Carlos Gray Sr. and Gloria Darden. Under the proposed agreement, the city would pay $2.8 million during the current fiscal year and $3.6 million next year, the city said.
By entering into a settlement, the city would avoid a lawsuit that could have played out in public court filings and testimony.
Such city settlements usually include a clause stating that both sides cannot talk publicly about the case.
Little discussion is expected today before the five-member Board of Estimates, which is controlled by the mayor. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt — the two independent votes on the board — voiced support for the settlement. The other members — George Nilson, the city solicitor, and Rudy Chow, the city's public works director — are part of Rawlings-Blake's administration.
Pratt said the settlement will resolve the civil matter and eliminate litigation costs to the city.
"I realize there are different points of view about the settlement, whether there should be a settlement, and the amount of the settlement," Pratt said in a statement.
"There is no single solution that can resolve all the matters that our City must address in considering the death of Mr. Gray and the impact of recent events."
Young believes the settlement prevents a lengthy legal proceeding and protects the city from a potential federal lawsuit, where a payout wouldn't be subject to a state cap, spokesman Lester Davis said.
"It was in the best interest of taxpayers of the city to work with the family to settle the case," Davis said.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the police union, called the settlement a "ridiculous reaction" by Rawlings-Blake and urged the Board of Estimates to reject it.
"Just as Baltimore is returning to its pre-riot normalcy, this news threatens to interrupt any progress made toward restoring the relationship between the members of the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore City government," Ryan said in a statement.
Police leaders also had concerns about the settlement.
"Claims that are settled so quickly and for such a great deal of money are of a concern for police chiefs and sheriffs because these events may have a chilling effect on the work of officers who will perhaps feel that their city or town does not support or value their work," said Karen Kruger, an attorney with Funk & Bolton and general counsel to the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association.
The settlement comes as Rawlings-Blake faces a re-election challenge from several well-known Democrats — a group that also showed a split in assessing the settlement.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh said her biggest concern was whether the settlement would have an impact on conducting trials that are fair to both Gray's family and the officers involved.
City Councilman Carl Stokes said the city should have waited for more information before making a decision and should have been more transparent about the decision to settle. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon said reaching the settlement was a "smart decision" that will help Gray's family "move on with their lives so they can put this behind them."
A multimillion-dollar wrongful-death settlement is rare in Baltimore. Only six payouts since 2011 exceeded $200,000 in the more than 120 police brutality-related claims. In all of those payouts, settlements came months or years after legal wrangling in court battles.
For example, the city paid $175,000 in mid-April to the estate of a man who was shot and killed by police. Michael Omar Wudtee, a 38-year-old Randallstown man, died in 2012 after being shot by police. His estate had sought $10 million in his death.
The state caps the amount of money that people injured by police can collect in civil lawsuits, but government officials can negotiate higher payments. In April, Gov. Larry Hogan signed legislation that increases the amount plaintiffs can generally receive, from $200,000 to $400,000. That's the first time the state cap was increased in nearly 30 years.
In a closely watched case earlier this year, Maryland's highest court upheld the cap, rejecting an $11.5 million payment awarded by a jury to the family of a Prince George's County man fatally shot by police. The Court of Appeals ruling in March cut the amount the county had to pay the family to $400,000.
Rawlings-Blake said at the time that a ruling in favor of that family could force local governments to pay out millions of dollars more when officers are sued for alleged civil rights violations.
The cap has potentially saved Baltimore taxpayers millions of dollars in recent years.
A Baltimore Sun investigation revealed last fall that the city spent $5.7 million in 102 court judgments and settlements for alleged police misconduct since 2011; since then, it has paid more than $600,000.The investigation showed that city residents — including a pregnant woman and an 87-year-old grandmother — received battered faces, broken bones and other injuries during questionable arrests.
The Gray settlement is similar to one reached by the family of Eric Garner and New York City in July.
The city agreed to pay $5.9 million to the family of Garner, who died in July 2014 after a police officer used a chokehold to subdue him on a Staten Island sidewalk. That case gained national attention after videos circulated showing Garner — an unarmed black man — repeatedly shouting, "I can't breathe!"
In Baltimore, other families who sued the city over deaths received lower payouts.
In June, Baltimore officials agreed to pay $56,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that a police chase led to the death in 2012 of 22-year-old Jordasha Rollins. The spending panel awarded the money to the family of the young woman, who was a passenger in a vehicle struck by a car fleeing from police, documents state.
The city paid $6 million about a decade ago to a man who became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a police van ride. A jury had awarded Jeffrey Alston $39 million in the 2004 case, but the amount was reduced through a settlement.
In another case, the state Court of Special Appeals reduced a $7.4 million jury award to the family of Dondi Johnson Sr. to $219,000. Johnson was paralyzed, and died two weeks later, after a 2005 police van ride that fractured his neck.
Bryan A. Levitt, a Towson attorney who has represented plaintiffs in such lawsuits, called the Gray settlement "a smart move socially" for the city because his death became an "internationally high-profile case."
He said Gray's in-custody death isn't as clear-cut as others like the one in South Carolina where an officer shot an unarmed black man as he ran away.
A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore defense attorney, called the settlement a "great move on the part of the city." He said it saves Gray's family the "hassle of litigation" that might not be resolved for years.
Pettit said the settlement also could have bigger implications for the city.
"I've always believed that when the city started to pay real money, instead of money after caps, that we would see the issue of police brutality and excessive force be remedied and solved very quickly," he said.
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