Baltimore approves $6.4 million wrongful death settlement in Freddie Gray case as police union howls

© stephanie.rawlingsblake
The Baltimore spending panel has unanimously approved the city’s proposed $6.4 million wrongful death settlement with the Freddie Gray family, even before the criminal trial for officers had begun. The local police union branded the move “obscene.”

The Board of Estimates panel is comprised of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, two members of her administration and two independent members.

On Wednesday morning, Rawlings-Blake told reporters that the decision to settle before the criminal cases against the officers had been resolved was prompted by a notification that Gray's family intended to file a federal suit. According to the terms of the agreement, Baltimore will pay out $2.8 million during the current fiscal year and $3.6 million in next year. It also includes a provision calling for the Baltimore PD to begin requiring all its officers to wear body cameras, which Rawlings-Blake said came with the understanding that the technology would first be deployed to the Western District, where Gray lived.

READ MORE: Baltimore to pay Freddie Gray family $6.4 million settlement, eclipsing combined previous payouts

Before the meeting, both independent members of the Board of Estimates ‒ City Council President Bernard C. ‘Jack’ Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt ‒ said they would vote to approve the settlement.

Pratt said the settlement will resolve the civil matter and eliminate litigation costs for the city.

“There is no single solution that can resolve all the matters that our City must address in considering the death of Mr. Gray and the impact of recent events," Pratt said in a statement. "This settlement resolves the claim of the Mr. Gray’s family and will eliminate litigation that will be costly for the city.”

After the meeting, Rawlings-Blake said that the decision to settle was made to avoid the "significant expense" of “years and years of protracted civil litigation” alongside the criminal case.

The settlement also comes one day before a hearing of pre-trial motions is scheduled, where a judge will decide whether the trials of the six Baltimore Police Department officers, who have been charged with crimes relating to the 25-year-old’s arrest and subsequent death in police custody, should be moved to a different jurisdiction.

FOP rails against ‘obscene’ settlement

Regardless of any practical reasons the city may have had for coming to a settlement agreement so quickly, the police union slammed the deal as one which will drive a further wedge between Baltimore’s government and police department.

“To suggest that there is any reason to settle prior to the adjudication of the pending criminal cases is obscene and without regard to the fiduciary responsibility owed to the taxpaying citizens of the City,” Lieutenant Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement on Twitter. “There has been no civil litigation filed nor has there been any guilt determined that would require such a ridiculous reaction on the part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her administration.”

Ryan reiterated the FOP’s stance on the settlement on WBAL’s ‘C4 Show’ with Clarence M. Mitchell IV on Wednesday.

"The rank and file, all of us, are outraged, furious and upset because this is another example of the mayor not supporting the rank and file," Ryan said. "The mayor has tried and convicted these officers and she's moving forward. Let the judicial system do what it's supposed to do, because I have trust in the judicial system."

After the Board of Estimates meeting, Rawlings-Blake said Ryan's comments "continue to baffle me."

"What this settlement does is remove any civil liability from the six officers," she said. "What this does is to ensure that at the end of the criminal trial, it is the end for those officers. Whatever the outcome of the trial is, that they know that on the other side of the litigation that there will be closure.”

"If I am Gene Ryan, and believe in my heart that these officers are innocent, then… I would say, 'Thank you',” the mayor continued. “But he can't do that."

Federal vs. state lawsuits

While the FOP may have wanted to take its chances on the outcome of a lawsuit, rather than settle, the city could have ended up losing even more money to the Gray family than the approved $6.4 million, which is not significantly more than the $5.9 million New York City  paid to settle a wrongful death suit in the case of Eric Garner. Garner’s family had originally sought $75 million.

The Gray family had recently signaled its intention to file a civil lawsuit in federal court, where it would not be subject to the same state caps on payouts, which meant the city is “essentially conceding a vulnerability under federal civil rights law,” the Baltimore Sun’s editorial board wrote in an Op-Ed.

Discussions with the Gray family's lawyers began three and a half months ago, concluding in late August, said City Solicitor George Nilson, who is also a member of the Board of Estimates.

The approved settlement will cost the city more than the combined payouts of over 120 lawsuits brought against the Baltimore PD claiming police brutality and misconduct since 2011, according to a 2014 Baltimore Sun investigation. The city paid out some $5.7 million in those cases, with payments capped at $500,000 per case, unless there were extenuating circumstances like multiple victims or actual malice. Baltimore paid an additional $5.8 million in legal fees for defending the police in those cases.

"It spares us all having the scab of April of this year picked over and over and over for five and six years to come," Nilson said. "That's something that would not be good for the city."


Effect on criminal cases

However, the settlement could have an effect on the six criminal cases against the Baltimore PD officers, even though the city did not admit liability in the agreement. On Thursday, Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams is set to decide whether or not to move the trials outside of the city.

“[T]here is at least the risk that a settlement that appears timed to decrease the likelihood of riots if Judge Williams changes the venue in fact makes it more likely that he will,” the Sun Op-Ed said. “If nothing else, it gives the defense attorneys one more argument to make on Thursday."

Jeremy Eldridge, a defense attorney and former city prosecutor, told the Sun that the settlement would definitely be at “the forefront of the conversation" over whether the officers can get a fair trial with jurors in Baltimore.

"Once again, there has been a direct impact on the citizens of Baltimore City. First and foremost, it's taxpayer money that's being used to fund this settlement," Eldridge said. "And although there's not a finding [of] liability on the part of the officers, the city's acknowledgment and subsequent settlement certainly connote some acknowledgment of liability. And for the average citizen to separate the two is going to be extremely difficult."

The reach of the internet, however, means that most everyone in Maryland knows about the details of the case. David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law school professor and an expert on police misconduct issues, told the Sun that the settlement could hinder the officers' ability to get a fair trial in Baltimore.

"If potential jurors don't understand the distinction, and they just think the city is admitting the police officers are at fault, a judge would tell them otherwise in jury instructions," Harris said. "But a lot of folks might still carry the thought of the civil settlement with them as potential jurors. So I would expect the civil settlement to come up in defense motions for change of venue."

Mayoral candidates voice opinions

The settlement became a topic for Rawlings-Blake’s opponents in the Democratic primary.

"I think it's unfair to quarterback a decision that's already been made and the city moves forward and our hope is that those officers still get a fair trial," candidate and state Sen. Catherine Pugh said, according to WBAL-TV.

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is running to take back her former job, told the NBC affiliate that she supports the settlement.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, another mayoral candidate, took a firmer stance, calling the settlement premature.

"The city is admitting liability there's no two ways about that," Stokes said on WEAA. "That being said I think the greater matter here for taxpayers is they need to hear the facts in this case."

Rawlings-Blake tried to rebuff questions from her foes as to where the funds for the settlement will come from, noting that the money will not come out of the city’s general fund.

"More than sufficient funds are available entirely from assured recoveries and cost savings from other non-related litigation," she said Wednesday.

Members of the Board of Estimates supported her claim.

"No public programs or projects will be affected in any way by the funding and the payment of the obligation set forth in the settlement agreement," Nilson said.