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Baltimore should move swiftly to stop police misconduct gag orders

Baltimore should move swiftly to stop police misconduct gag orders
City Council President Brandon Scott, who recently assumed the position when former Council President Jack Young became mayor, conducts a council session. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore City Council should expeditiously work to pass legislation that would prevent the city from silencing people who settle police misconduct and brutality cases.

The longtime practice of forcing people to sign gag orders that prevent them from discussing their cases not only stomps on their free speech rights but allows police to hide from their bad behavior. (We should also point out the city is still allowed to talk freely about cases, and does insofar as it suits its interests.) The cops in essence are not held fully accountable, leaving the possibility that they will continue to brutalize other people. As a federal appeals court said, it becomes hush money. Talk and you lose half your financial settlement.

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In a 2-1 ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unequivocally declared the non-disclosure agreements to be unconstitutional. If only City Solicitor Andre Davis, who plans to appeal, would stop fighting the issue. He and the team of city lawyers say it will hurt the ability to negotiate future settlements and that these kinds of clauses are used by other cities.

That may be the case, but there are also cities without such agreements, and Baltimore should become one of those. And the city law department should continue to work as diligently for fair settlements with or without a gag order.

Kudos to Council President Brandon Scott and Councilwoman Shannon Sneed who plan to introduce legislation today that would prohibit restricting people from talking about their cases. We urge the rest of the council to support their legislation, which was spurred by the court’s decision. As Ms. Sneed said, speaking about their experiences can help victims move past the trauma of bad encounters with cops. It would also show the city is serious about cleaning up a police department plagued by a perception of corruption.

The legislation would also require the city to publicly release details about settlements, something we also support. Currently, little is known about the cases other than the dollar amount, which must be approved by the city’s Board of Estimates. That does not go nearly far enough.

In a city trying to mend relations and rebuild trust between cops and its residents, getting rid of the gag orders would help build more transparency into the system. What exactly is the city trying to hide if they are doing right by citizens with these settlements? They should want to track bad police officer behavior and show residents they are taking responsibility when officers misbehave.

Transparency is not a bad thing for police departments that want to operate openly and honestly. Police officers work for the taxpayers and act on the public’s behalf, and we have a right to know the full details of any misconduct, including how cases are investigated and if the settlements go beyond a slap on the wrist. The recent case of the Gun Trace Task Force, where rogue police officers assaulted, robbed and took advantage of citizens, showed police officers can’t monitor themselves.

The 4th Circuit’s decision should bring hope to people like Ashley Overbey, the city resident who joined with local news website, the Baltimore Brew, to sue the city in federal court. She sued three police officers claiming they beat, tased, verbally abused and arrested her in her home after she called 911 to report a burglary. She settled for $63,000, but was ordered to pay half of it back after talking to the media. The ACLU took the case, and more than two dozen other news media organizations, including The Baltimore Sun, joined the most recent appeal.

Various other groups have also pushed for an end to the gag order during the last several years, including the Center for American Progress and the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs. The chorus is loud for this change. It is about time it happened.

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