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Baltimore clarifies clause in police settlements

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration has adjusted a clause to better explain the restrictions on people who accept money to settle lawsuits over allegations of police misconduct.

While the longer "nondisparagement clause" doesn't add more restrictions, it specifies that those who sign settlements can't talk with reporters from print, television or online companies or post comments or documents on websites. The old clause said "news media."

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The penalty for disobeying: Lawyers for the city may try to recoup tens of thousands of dollars from the settlement.

The clarification comes a year after the city seized $31,500 from a woman's $63,000 settlement. Not long after the city's spending board approved the payment, anonymous online commenters accused her of initiating an arrest to get a payout. She replied that people should learn the facts before commenting and described the incident, mirroring statements in her lawsuit.

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The old clause said limitations on "public statements shall include a prohibition in discussing any facts or allegations ... with the news media," except to say the lawsuit has been settled.

The expanded clause says: "It is understood and agreed by the settling parties that this limitation on public comments or statements shall include a prohibition against discussing, supplying, posting, communication or publishing any opinions, materials comments, documents, facts or allegations in any way connected to the litigation or the occurrence … with/to anyone including the news media or through any other media (print, television, or online)," except to say the lawsuit has been settled.

The nondisparagement clause drew attention last year after a Baltimore Sun investigation found that since 2011, the city had paid nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements for 102 lawsuits alleging police misconduct. The clause, critics said, ran counter to promises of government transparency and helped to conceal police brutality — an issue that triggered protests and rioting in the wake of Freddie Gray's death in April.

As a result, the city studied settlements in other cities. In May, the administration added a provision allowing those who settle lawsuits to discuss cases with accountants, tax preparers and financial consultants.

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In some cases, the city can omit the restriction from such settlements. For example, the recent $6.4 million settlement with Gray's family didn't contain the clause. The city and the family's attorney made public statements about the case.

—Mark Puente

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