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The Baltimore Police Department would be prohibited by law from requiring victims of police brutality and misconduct to sign gag orders, under an ordinance that will be introduced in the City Council this week. It's prompted by a federal appeals court decision that the requirement was unconstitutional.
The Baltimore Police Department would be prohibited by law from requiring victims of police brutality and misconduct to sign gag orders, under an ordinance that will be introduced in the City Council this week. It's prompted by a federal appeals court decision that the requirement was unconstitutional. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore Police Department would be prohibited by law from requiring victims of police brutality and misconduct to sign gag orders under an ordinance that will be introduced Monday in the City Council.

The “Transparency and Oversight in Claims and Litigation” legislation, sponsored by Councilwoman Shannon Sneed and City Council President Brandon Scott, was prompted by a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision earlier this month that the gag order requirement is unconstitutional.

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In addition to prohibiting the nondisclosure agreements, the ordinance would require the city’s law department to publicly disclose information about the claims filed.

Scott applauded the decision by the federal appeals court, which deemed the required nondisclosure agreements “hush money." For police accountability, “transparency at all levels is critical," the Democratic City Council president said in a statement.

“While the Baltimore Police Department is making steady progress at reforming itself into a force Baltimoreans can be proud of, the city and BPD take responsibility for past actions and allow for honest dialogue,” Scott said. “Victims of police brutality have a constitutionally protected right to speak about their experiences. We have an obligation to own our mistakes and be accountable to Baltimore’s residents."

Sneed, the ordinance’s lead sponsor, called it “a step in the right direction.”

“For years, survivors of police misconduct have been required to not speak as a condition of their settlements,” the Democrat said in a statement. “This decision opens the door for people to overtly speak their truth and begin to heal from past trauma."

Tawanda Jones, a Baltimore activist who has held weekly protests against police brutality since her brother, Tyrone West, died after he was beaten by Baltimore and Morgan State police six years ago, refused to sign a gag order presented to her as part of a civil case against the city.

“It would kill me not to speak about what happened to my brother,” she said in a statement. "Tyrone’s killing changed our whole family’s life forever, in a blink of an eye. It devastated us. Maybe by passing this bill, we can change people’s lives in a positive way, so at least they won’t be forced into silence anymore.”

The ordinance will be introduced at Monday night’s council meeting.

The city’s lawyers have argued that without the ability to negotiate the gag orders — which are technically termed “nondisparagement clauses" — it will be more difficult to negotiate settlements.

“Settling defendants in future police litigation will almost certainly offer less money to plaintiffs because they have less incentive to settle, which will reduce the number and mutual value of settlements,” the lawyers wrote in a written argument filed in the case that led to the federal appeals court’s ruling. “This directly cuts against the well-established public interest favoring settlements in order to avoid the time and expense of litigation.”

The city’s lawyers also argued that Ashley Overbey, a woman who agreed to a settlement in case involving three police officers that included a gag clause, freely made a decision in which both sides won some things and lost others.

“Ms. Overbey received money; the city resolved its financial obligations as insurer; and [officers] Fred Hannah, Martin Richardson, and Grant Galing received an end to the accusations against them,” the lawyers wrote.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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