The $6.4 million settlement of the Freddie Gray civil case raises many eyebrows and questions for the City of Baltimore. Some question why the City settled the case, the amount of the settlement and the timing of the settlement—one month before the trial of six police officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray starts. Many question whether the City should have waited until the conclusion of all 6 trials of the officers before entertaining a settlement. William H. Murphy, Jr., the family’s attorney, had not filed a lawsuit. Those who argue the amount of the settlement question whether the value of Freddie Gray’s life and death warranted a high 7 figure settlement. Gray lived in the Sandtown area of West Baltimore—an area plighted with high poverty, high unemployment, high drug use and other socio-economic ailments. And some legal scholars wonder whether the timing of the settlement will affect Baltimore’s ability to keep the police officers’ trials in Baltimore. I question the settlement for other reasons.
All of the facts are not known about the Freddie Gray case. What is apparently known is that Baltimore police placed 25 year old Freddie Gray in a police van face down without any restraints. Gray was found unconscious 45 minutes later. He died one week later in a hospital from severe spinal injuries. The Baltimore Medical Examiner ruled his death a homicide.
Various factors go into reaching a settlement in a case. Former Police Officer Anthony Batts stated in April that police broke protocol by refusing to restrain Gray in the van. Past similar incidents might also have factored into the civil case. Some in Baltimore refer to a police practice of placing arrestees without restraint and taking them on a “rough ride”. The Gray’s attorney would likely file the case in federal court for civil rights violations of Freddie Gray. In federal court for civil rights violations, no limitations on the amount of damages exists against a municipality and its employees.
Undeniably the settlement may have an effect on the criminal trial of the officers. Ultimately, the decision on whether the impact of the settlement and prior publicity will affect the police officers’ rights to a fair trial rests with Judge Barry Williams. A hearing on the Defendants’ motions to change the venue will be heard in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Thursday, September 10—one day after the City officials meet to approve the settlement.
I question the millions of dollars being spent to settle police brutality cases for other reasons. The millions of dollars spent on settling police excessive force cases do not appear to have any effect on the police department. And yet, the money could go to other uses—starting with training police officers on racial bias and excessive force. However, as long as officers commit violations of the law, there will be settlements. The City of Baltimore’s readiness to settle police brutality cases rather than address the problem of police excessive force lies at the heart of the matter. The real problem lies in how to avoid another Freddie Gray being the subject of police brutality and receiving a settlement. Without police brutality and excessive force, there would be no need for large settlements.
Settlements of police brutality cases do not deter future police brutality cases. These cases do not financially hurt the police officers, the police department or its union. The monies come out of the City of Baltimore funds fueled by taxpayers.
In a city of over 600,000 residents where approximately 25% live below the poverty level, millions of dollars could go a long way towards helping the citizens, like the Freddie Grays of West Baltimore. In a city of high unemployment, high drug use and high crime, monies are needed to address the socio-economic issues facing the City.
The Department of Justice is looking into the practices of the Baltimore City Police Department to determine if a pattern and practice of excessive force and other violations exist. I urge the City of Baltimore, its Mayor, Interim Police Chief and other elected officials to move forward now on improving its police force with proper training of the officers on how to do their job without violating civil rights of their citizens. It is too late for Freddie Gray.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.
UPDATE: On Thursday, September 10, Judge Barry Williams denied the 6 police officers’ motion to remove their trials from Baltimore due to prejudicial publicity and the civil settlement by the City of Baltimore. The cases will remain in Baltimore.