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Another day, another settlement

Another Board of Estimates meeting, another $280,000 in settlements of police misconduct lawsuits. This time, it was a man who sought damages after an officer shot him while he was holding a large butcher's knife, a man who claimed false arrest after an altercation with police outside a bar at closing time, and a young disabled girl who required two surgeries after a police horse bit her hand.

A month ago, the city agreed to a $200,000 settlement with a man who claimed an officer told him he was under arrest "for being a black smart ass." (That was the third settlement involving former officer David Reeping, who was also convicted in the police towing scandal.)

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A month before that, the Board of Estimates approved a $56,000 settlement in a case involving a police chase in which a 22-year-old woman was killed and an infant injured.

In May, the city paid $42,500 to settle a suit from a woman who was accidentally shot by an officer who was scuffling with others.

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In April, it was an $80,000 settlement to a man who was punched by police during an altercation that started with a loud car stereo, and $175,000 to settle a wrongful death suit after an officer fatally shot a man during a chase and struggle.

In February, the city agreed to a $73,000 settlement in a wrongful arrest case involving a security guard at an apartment complex and a $150,000 settlement to a man who had two fingers shot off by an officer. (Some city officials were angered at the time because Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration had not told fellow Board of Estimates members City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt about a previous, $100,000 settlement involving the same officer.)

All told, that's a bit over $1 million in settlements so far this year.

In voting on the last batch, Mr. Young mused that perhaps in the future such settlements should come out of the police department's budget rather than general funds. "I'm talking about bad cops," Mr. Young said. "Let it hit them in the pocket. If their budget is being affected, maybe they will change their behavior." We don't think that would work — first of all, as Mayor Rawlings-Blake observed, the settlements generally involve behavior that occurred years before, and second, the rank-and-file officers who are typically involved in these suits probably aren't, in the heat of the moment, sweating the impact of their actions on the agency's $450 million budget.

But we understand where he's coming from. In as much as the mayor can cite statistics showing that the total number of suits against the police and the amounts of settlements have declined in recent years — in 2010, her first year in office, the city paid $4.4 million — they continue to come with clockwork regularity. After years in which Ms. Rawlings-Blake says she has sought to improve relations between the department and the community, these cases and settlements remain both symptoms and causes of the continued dysfunctional relationship between the city's police and the people they are charged with protecting.

The city, as a rule, doesn't admit wrongdoing when it agrees to these settlements — indeed, the details of the cases are often murky — but it pays anyway to avoid the uncertainty of a trial before a Baltimore City jury. In recommending these payouts, the city solicitor's office is effectively admitting that in ambiguous circumstances, a panel of 12 Baltimoreans is apt to believe someone accusing the police of misconduct rather than the officers. That's an unfortunate truth that colors nearly everything about law enforcement in this city, from the investigation of crime to the willingness of witnesses to step forward to the likelihood that prosecutors can secure convictions. Even if the number of cases against officers is on the decline, that phenomenon, in the months after Freddie Gray's death, is clearly as strong as ever.

Charging the police department for settlements involving officers won't help. The Board of Estimates blithely approved them for years with little discussion until The Sun's Mark Puente highlighted the issue last year, and even after that, Ms. Rawlings-Blake's administration has been reticent in providing details about them and has stuck with the outrageous practice of requiring settlement recipients to sign away their right to talk about their cases.

These settlements will dry up when Baltimore residents trust the police again. Body cameras could help. They would eliminate some of the doubt about what happened during a police-citizen encounter gone bad. They would serve as a tangible symbol of transparency, and they would allow the department to better train officers and to monitor how they interact with the community.

Ultimately, though, it's going to be a matter of all the good officers in the department refusing to tolerate and cover for the bad. Last weekend, when officers confronted an unruly crowd of dirt bikers near Druid Hill Park, one policeman pulled out his gun and appeared to wave it at a group of people standing on a hillside. One of his fellow officers reportedly told him to "put his [expletive] gun away." Let's count that as progress.

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