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Baltimore Panel Approves $6.4 Million For Freddie Gray’s Family

By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun (TNS)

BALTIMORE — Baltimore’s spending panel unanimously approved a $6.4 million payout Wednesday to settle the threat of a federal lawsuit in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the action does not represent a judgment in the criminal case against the six officers involved in his April arrest.

“This settlement is about fiscal calculation, legal risk and what’s best for the city of Baltimore,” Rawlings-Blake said. “We must consider all of the potential expenses of defending a lawsuit in court, and the potential exposure to the citizens of Baltimore if we are to lose the court case, and the cost to the city if we are to win.”

Discussions with the Gray family’s lawyers began 3 months ago, concluding in late August, City Solicitor George Nilson said. He said timing was a factor in Wednesday’s settlement vote.

A hearing is scheduled Thursday for a judge to decide whether to move out of Baltimore the trials facing the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest and transport inside a police van. All of the officers have pleaded not guilty, and their attorneys will argue that they cannot get a fair trial in the city because the publicity surrounding the case.

Nilson said city officials considered delaying the vote on the settlement for 10 days, but decided against it.

If “we settled this case 10 days from now, the defense lawyers would have be back arguing a change of venue, and the whole discussion would be about this action’s impact on venue, rather than focusing on the impact on the publicity back in the spring,” Nilson said.

Rawlings-Blake said the decision to settle before the criminal cases against the officers are resolved was triggered by the notification that Gray’s family intended to file federal litigation. A federal case, on the ground that Gray’s constitutional rights were violated, would not be subject to the state’s cap in such cases, generally $400,000.

She said the city also has assured Gray’s family that police officers in the Western District — which includes the site of Gray’s arrest — will be the first in the city equipped with body cameras. She said she plans to launch a two-month pilot program there “as soon as possible.” The mayor had earlier pledged to start the pilot by the end of the year.

“We’ve been in a lot of conversations with the Gray family’s attorneys, making sure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” the mayor said. “Mr. Gray’s family and their attorneys understand that those cameras are coming.”

The mayor said the settlement will not affect the city’s general fund, adding, “More than sufficient funds are available entirely from assured recoveries and cost savings from other non-related litigation.”

Nilson said the officers charged in Gray’s death are not named in the settlement.

“From the city’s perspective, the importance of the settlement is to bring an important measure of closure to the family, the community and the city — and to spare the police officers now facing six criminal trials the continuing ordeal of years and years of civil litigation after those criminal trials are over,” Nilson said.

“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 added. “That’s something that would not be good for the city.”

Nilson went on to call the settlement both “substantial” and “affordable.”

“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,” he said.

Rawlings-Blake pointed to the potential outcome should an “unfavorable jury verdict” be reached in the Gray case as another factor in supporting the payout.

“We came to the conclusion that this settlement is in the best interest of protecting taxpayers,” she said. “The settlement also represents an opportunity to bring a measure of closure to the Gray family, to the community and to the city. We can avoid years and years of protracted civil litigation and the potential harm to the community and the divisiveness which might result. We’ve seen the impact on the city on just one motions hearing.”

Last week’s hearing included protests — city streets were closed and one person marching downtown was arrested — and additional international media coverage of the case.

“All of us realize that money cannot, will not … bring back a loved one,” Rawlings-Blake said. “But I hope that this settlement will bring at least a measure of closure for the family, for the police department and for our city.”

Rawlings-Blake also took issue with comments made by the police union president, Lt. Gene Ryan, on Tuesday, in response to news of the settlement.

Ryan called the settlement a “ridiculous reaction” by the mayor, and said the settlement “threatens to interrupt any progress made toward restoring the relationship between the members of the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore City government.”

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.’ But he can’t do that.”

Ryan spoke about the settlement Wednesday on WBAL radio’s “C4 Show” with Clarence M. Mitchell IV.

“What did the mayor base her decision on? Because it makes absolutely no sense to me. We haven’t spent one day in court,” Ryan said. “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 his concern with the settlement is the appearance that “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.”
___
(The Baltimore Sun’s Kevin Rector contributed to this report.)

Photo: Freddie Gray, who died while police were transporting him to a police station. Wikipedia” target=”_blank”>Wikipedia

Baltimore Mayor Fires Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts

By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun (TNS)

BALTIMORE — Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she has replaced Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, citing “utmost urgency” to stop a recent surge in violence.

“We cannot grow Baltimore without making our city a safer place to live,” Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference at City Hall. “We need a change. This was not an easy decision, but it is one that is in the best interest of the people of Baltimore. The people of Baltimore deserve better.”

Rawlings-Blake named Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Davis interim commissioner, effective immediately.

Rawlings-Blake’s decision came hours after she lashed out at the city’s police union for its highly critical report of the Police Department leadership during last month’s rioting. She did not respond to a call for Batts’ resignation from faith coalition Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

She said the Fraternal Order of Police report did not play a role in her decision and that her motivation was instead the spate of murders that has erupted in the city over the past month.

Rawlings-Blake commended Batts for his service, citing improvements in transparency and accountability.

“Over the past three years, Commissioner Batts has served our city with distinction,” she said.

But she said new leadership was needed to stem a recent surge of violence, including the deaths of three people in a quadruple shooting near the University of Maryland, Baltimore, on Tuesday night.

The city’s homicide rate spiked soon after riots overtook much of West Baltimore on April 27. The city recorded 42 homicides in May, the deadliest month in 25 years. There have been 31 homicides in the past month.

Batts has led the city’s police force since October 2012. He last served as police chief in Long Beach, Calif., and Oakland, Calif. He earned more than $200,000 a year.

Delegate Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and co-chair of the state’s new working group on public safety, said the move was inevitable.

“I know there was a lot of frustration over what was going on in Baltimore,” Anderson said. “Clearly when the discussion about the police commissioner becomes more important than actual problem, the mayor has to remove that obstacle.”

Davis, who has most recently served as deputy commissioner, has a long history in law enforcement.

He previously served as police chief in Anne Arundel County and assistant police chief in Prince George’s County.

“It’s all about the crime fight, and it’s all about the relationships with our community,” Davis said at the press conference.

(The Baltimore Sun’s Scott Dance and Justin Fenton contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File photo: Baltimore firefighters battle a three-alarm fire at Gay and Chester Streets on Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Social Security Computer System Still Not Working After Six Years

By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The Social Security Administration has spent nearly $300 million to develop a computer system to speed processing of disability claims, but the system still isn’t working after six years, according to a newly released report.

An independent analysis commissioned by the agency found that the project has been mismanaged and poorly executed. It is still in the “lengthy, expensive design phase,” the report found, while disabled Americans continue to wait hundreds of days — and sometimes years — for benefits.

Top lawmakers in Washington sharply criticized the agency’s acting commissioner, Carolyn W. Colvin, demanding by the end of the month all documents and communication related to the Disability Case Processing System for the last six months.

“It is concerning that while you and other agency officials routinely testify that the agency needs more funding from Congress, the agency wasted nearly $300 million on an IT boondoggle,” ranking members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wrote in a letter to Colvin this week.

Social Security officials acknowledged the delay Thursday, saying building the system has been more complex than anticipated. The agency did not provide a date by which it expects the system to be operating.

The development comes as Colvin prepares for a Senate confirmation hearing next week. Colvin was nominated last month by President Barack Obama to serve a six-year term. Colvin has served as acting director of the agency since February 2013.

The members of Congress say that senior Social Security officials planned to withhold the 67-page report by consultants McKinsey & Co. until after Colvin’s confirmation hearing. They said “whistle-blowers” brought the report to the committee’s attention. The report, dated June 3, was released by the committee this week.

“According to these sources, senior agency staff placed a very close hold on this report with the goal of ensuring details about its findings remain secret until your confirmation by the Senate,” the House members wrote in the letter to Colvin. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on that allegation.

A Social Security spokesman said officials have taken action on one of the report’s leading recommendations, saying the agency has appointed a “single, accountable, program executive with full authority needed to manage the program.”

“Social Security has embraced McKinsey’s recommendations and has already taken proactive and definitive steps to strengthen the program,” agency spokesman William “BJ” Jarrett said in an emailed response.

Social Security initiated the effort to improve its technology infrastructure for disability claims in December 2010 as a way to make “timely and accurate disability decisions.” The agency did not explain the discrepancy between the 2010 date and the six years cited in the report.

Jarrett noted that the report “highlights a number of program strengths” as well as recommended changes.

“Social Security is committed to implementing the assessment recommendations,” Jarrett said. As it does, “we will create a new implementation schedule.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the oversight committee, cautioned against a rush to judgment. He noted that the report was commissioned at the agency’s request.

“It raises some serious concerns, but it is too soon to draw any conclusions because the committee has not even asked the agency for its response,” Cummings said in a statement.

The computer system is the latest problem for the agency’s disability program, which provides benefits to more than 19 million Americans. In addition to the delays, congressional investigations have revealed that administrative law judges who evaluate disability claims on appeal were rubber-stamping millions of cases at a potentially significant cost to taxpayers.

As of June, more than 660,000 claims were waiting awaiting an initial decision, with an average processing time of 110 days. Another 955,000 cases waited an average of 413 days on appeal.

The Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, which was hired as the lead contractor for the computer system, described the project as a “highly available, scalable, and modern web-based system.”

The project was expected to save Social Security money by eliminating the need to maintain 54 separate systems, and allow the agency to process claims “faster and with higher consistency,” the company wrote in a 2011 news release.

The McKinsey report recommend that the agency decide whether to keep the current contractor, use multiple vendors, or chose a new one. Regardless of that decision, the report called on the agency to strengthen management of the vendor.

Steve Field, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, declined to answer questions about the project, saying only that the company is “committed to delivering on this program and for our customer.”

The report also found that the project remained in the beta testing phase after six years with “limited functionality” and more than 380 outstanding problems. The rollout date over the life of the project was “consistently projected to be 24-32 months away.”

To develop the findings, McKinsey conducted more than 40 interviews and reviewed 300 documents, the report says.

John Fritze contributed to this report.

Photo: Donkey Hotey via Flickr

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