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