Brutality lawsuits continue in Baltimore, site of Freddie Gray death

Lawsuits continue to be filed against Baltimore police.

The city of Baltimore — which is investigating whether police misconduct played a part in Freddie Gray's death — continues to pay out tens of thousands of dollars in settlements for lawsuits alleging brutality.

In the last two weeks, for example, the city's spending board approved two settlements totaling $255,000. One lawsuit was filed by the estate of a man shot and killed by police in 2012. The other was filed by a man who said he incurred more than $55,000 in medical and dental expenses after being punched by an officer in 2011.

Overall, the city has paid roughly $6.3 million since 2011 to settle police-misconduct claims, according to a Baltimore Sun review of city and court records.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told national audiences this week that the situation has improved since she took office in 2010. "Lawsuits against the city, against the Police Department, under my administration have gone down," she said Tuesday on CNN.

City documents obtained by The Sun in a Maryland Public Information Act request show that 156 lawsuits were filed from 2013 through late 2014 that allege misconduct against officers — a 20 percent decline from the 193 filed in 2011 and 2012.

"The expectation of the mayor is that numbers continue to trend down," said Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, Kevin Harris. "We've been working very hard at it. We still have work to do."

The city, Harris added, could not compare the number of lawsuits filed to earlier periods because City Hall lacked a comprehensive system to track cases.

Gray's death while in police custody has put Baltimore and its Police Department at the center of a national debate about the way police officers treat African-American males. In television appearances, Rawlings-Blake has pledged transparency and accountability as angry protests continue in the city.

Sun investigation revealed last fall that the city spent $5.7 million in 102 court judgments and settlements for alleged police misconduct since 2011; since then, there has been an additional $587,250 in payouts. The investigation showed that city residents — including a pregnant woman and an 87-year-old grandmother — received battered faces, broken bones and other injuries during questionable arrests.

Many of the lawsuits filed in recent years have been settled; in such settlements, the city and police officers do not acknowledge liability for alleged injuries.

City lawyers have said that lawsuits against police are sometimes settled because the cost of litigation is high. In the recent $175,000 settlement for the man killed by police in 2012, city lawyers cited the unpredictability of jury verdicts and conflicting accounts of the incident.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3 disagrees with a city policy of settling some brutality lawsuits to avoid lengthy litigation.

"We believe that these cases should be decided in court where proper time and attention can be given," the union said in a statement. "The ease of settlement, and substantial award amount, has led to the unjustified perception of an increase in brutality complaints."

After asking the U.S. Department of Justice in early October to help reform the police force, Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts began publicly stating that recent initiatives have led to a decline in lawsuits against police.

Through a Maryland Public Information Act request, The Sun then requested details on lawsuits filed in 2013 and 2014. The city provided records for 156 cases.

The payouts will likely continue for years. Last fall, the city budgeted an additional $4.2 million for legal fees, judgments and lawsuits, a $2.5 million increase from fiscal 2014.

Attorney A. Dwight Pettit, who has sued dozens of police officers in the last 40 years, said the drop in lawsuits over a two-year period isn't a big accomplishment in a city with a history of police abuses. He believes the drop is cyclical and said he still gets many calls from people injured in police encounters.

"I don't think it has anything to do with a change in police policies," he said. "We're still seeing a lot of excessive force."

Under Maryland law, monetary awards in such cases are generally capped at $200,000, limiting the government's liability.

Taxpayer payouts could rise if city lawyers don't succeed in attempts to appeal a recent $2.3 million jury verdict in federal court for a man who spent 15 months in solitary confinement after being accused of being a rapist. Forensic evidence later cleared him.

Another man won $587,000 in state court against two officers. Police shot the man when he refused to drop a knife in 2011 during what was called a "schizophrenic episode."

Many allegations in the lawsuits filed in 2013 and 2014 mirror those detailed in The Sun's investigation.

For example, a 75-year-old woman who is seeking $200,000 says in court papers that officers raided her Liberty Heights home but didn't find any drugs. She accused an officer of false arrest, false imprisonment and battery during the January 2013 encounter. The case is scheduled to go to trial in August.

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said the organization gets weekly complaints from people who have been released from jail without being charged, and some of those incidents trigger lawsuits.

Since The Sun's investigation, the city has taken steps to provide more information about misconduct allegations. For example, the Law Department began posting online the outcomes of all civil lawsuits alleging police brutality and vowed to give the city spending board more details about proposed settlements.

Other promises to increase transparency have been slow to materialize.

For example, the city has not yet followed through on a pledge to review a controversial clause in settlement agreements.

When Baltimore residents settle lawsuits alleging police brutality or other misconduct, they must promise to keep silent about the incidents that sparked the suits — an arrangement that shields key details from the public. The penalty for disobeying: Lawyers for the city may try to recoup tens of thousands of dollars from the settlement.

The standard settlement agreement drew criticism from defense lawyers and some city officials after it was highlighted in The Sun's investigation. Critics said the clause helped keep the scope of misconduct allegations from becoming widely known. The clause states that limitations on "public statements shall include a prohibition in discussing any facts or allegations ... with the news media," except to say the suit has been settled.

But many other cities, including Washington, Philadelphia and Las Vegas, have rejected the use of such clauses in an effort to increase the transparency of government operations.

In October, Baltimore took a hard line on Ashley Overbey's settlement. The woman from Northeast Baltimore lost $31,500 of her $63,000 settlement for defending herself in online comments about her allegations of police brutality.

Not long after the city's spending board approved the payment in September, anonymous online commenters accused Overbey of initiating her arrest to get a big payout.

Overbey, who had no criminal record, replied online that people should learn the facts before commenting. She alleged that three officers beat her after she reported a burglary in her home in April 2012. She described the incident online, mirroring statements in her lawsuit.

City Solicitor George Nilson said in November that his department would reconsider the policy of requiring plaintiffs to keep silent after settlements are reached, and pledged to determine whether the non-disclosure clause is consistent with best practices.

Rawlings-Blake said in December that she expected to have results from the study sometime in January.

Harris, her spokesman, said Wednesday, "The policy is still under review. We will release it when it's completed."

mpuente@baltsun.com

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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