We take a break from the usual weekly effort to straighten out Trump administration lies to highlight a particularly damaging alternative fact right here at home. On Tuesday, Baltimore’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, thought it a good time to raise alarm among the men and women in blue by sending out a memo claiming that the city had changed a policy and would no longer cover punitive damages against officers in civil suits if juries found they had acted with “actual malice.” A few of the problems here:
1. It is demonstrably untrue. The city’s policy on this, in place for decades, has been that it is not required to pay punitive damages in cases of malice. The FOP claims the new city solicitor, Andre Davis, established this rule, but he didn’t. And we need not take his word for it; his predecessor, George Nilson, confirmed as much.
2. Any other policy would be an absurdly bad idea. Mr. Davis, in a particularly eloquent and forceful rejoinder, notes that the city’s policy, which follows from the text and judicial interpretations of Maryland’s Local Government Tort Claims Act, “reflects the ordinary common sense notion that if government employees are told that no matter how badly they misbehave, no matter how maliciously they inflict harm or injuries on their fellow citizens, their employer will pay for that harm, then we can expect an increase in such harm. Employees, including police officers who, no doubt have the most difficult job in government, are not privileged to inflict gratuitous injury on others without also incurring personal consequences.”
3. This issue rarely comes up. FOP lawyers say as many as nine officers are currently at risk of being forced to pay punitive damages out of pocket, but the vast majority of complaints against police are settled out of court by the city at taxpayers’ expense before a jury even has the chance to consider malice or punitive damages. And in those cases that do go to trial, the city defends the officers, and Mr. Davis confirms that it will continue to appeal punitive damages in cases where the accused’s attorney believes it is warranted.
And 4. Wow, bad timing. The FOP’s letter warns that if an officer is judged to have acted with actual malice — that is, he or she was “motivated by a personal hatred” — he or she can be hit with punitive damages, and it claims that city juries are all too eager to do so regardless of the evidence. What the city’s supposed new policy means, FOP President Gene Ryan writes, “is that police officers are now required to pay these punitive damage awards, which can amount to thousands of dollars, out of their own pockets. … Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties.”
In other words, you can’t trust the people you’re supposed to protect, and the city that employs you will hang you out to dry, so don’t knock yourself out trying to fight crime.
Perhaps Mr. Ryan hasn’t had time to read about it, but there’s been a trial going on in federal court the last few weeks in which two officers stand accused of participating in what amounts to an organized crime ring under the cover of the badge, allegations to which several of their former colleagues have already pleaded guilty. As day after day of testimony has gone by, and the claims have piled up about widespread misconduct in the department — including drug dealing, theft, illegal searches overtime fraud and much more — average Baltimoreans might be excused for harboring some doubts about whether the police are really on their side or whether they consider themselves above the law, able to abuse city residents with impunity. If the FOP wanted to foster that impression, it could scarcely have thought of a better way to do it than this.