Yesterday we learned that Baltimore has agreed to a $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray. The settlement comes before the family even filed a wrongful death suit against the city and as criminal charges are pending against six officers.
What we know is this, however – the city probably faces two points of liability here. First, police officers failed to secure Mr. Gray. Second, they failed to administer timely medical care even after Mr. Gray was complaining about difficulty breathing and he became unresponsive.
Based on that, the city’s risk assessors likely were supportive of some form of settlement.
Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reportedly believed such a settlement would not affect the criminal cases, but it would avoid a drawn-out civil case against the city or police.
“This settlement is being proposed solely because it is in the best interest of the city, and avoids costly and protracted litigation that would only make it more difficult for our city to heal and potentially cost taxpayers many millions more in damages,” she said in a statement.
The Washington Post today put the settlement in perspective with a chart of other major settlements from excessive force cases. The settlement slightly exceeds the $5.9 million New York officials agreed to pay to the family of Eric Garner, who died after he was put in a chokehold by police on Staten Island.
Rodney King in 1994 received $3.8 million from Los Angeles, an amount the Washington Post estimates at $6.2 million today. One of two of the more infamous New York cases was that of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times after he reached for what police thought was a gun but turned out to be his wallet. All four police officers were acquitted in that case. His family received $3 million ($3.8 million in 2015 dollars).
On the other hand, Abner Louima received $8.75 million ($11.8 in today’s dollars) in 1997 after being tortured and sexually assaulted by a New York City police officer. In that case, Mr. Louima suffered severe internal injuries, the officer was found guilty of the assault, and a second officer was convicted of holding Louima down while the officer attacked him.
Three lesser known cases drew far more. Carlton Brown drew $16.6 million for a 1992 incident, the family of LaTanya Haggery drew $18 million, and Christina Eilman drew $22.5 million. The Post writes, “Eilman was a 21-year-old UCLA student when she was arrested for acting erratically at Midway Airport in Chicago. Police held her overnight, during which she acted psychotically for hours. Despite her mental illness, police released her alone in a high-crime neighborhood. She was raped that night, then fell from a seventh-story window, suffering severe injuries.”
However, many observers see this in Baltimore as a political settlement, aimed at easing tensions and anger among city residents.
“The fact the civil matter seems to be resolved hopefully will reduce some of the tension among people who might have demonstrated at each of those six trials,” said Kurt L. Schmoke, a former Baltimore mayor and state’s attorney who is now president of the University of Baltimore. “They might feel there is at least some semblance of justice that has occurred for the Gray family.”
Meanwhile, the “Baltimore police union blasted the agreement as ‘obscene,’ saying there is no reason to settle before the criminal cases are resolved and before a civil case was filed.”
In a statement, Lt. Gene Ryan, the union’s president, said the agreement “threatens to interrupt any progress made toward restoring the relationship between the members of the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore City government.”
The Baltimore Sun editorial was equally critical, arguing that “the best case that can be made” for the settlement is that “it might have prevented a riot.” However, they add, “it nonetheless also carries real risk for the city in terms of setting precedents for future cases, changing the course of the criminal trials and affecting public safety in the city more generally.”
They write, “The settlement appears on first blush to be an eye-popping amount — more than the city’s combined total payouts in police misconduct cases since 2011, and 16 times the cap for damages for such cases in state courts.”
However, they still believe it could be “a great deal for the city.” They argue, “The Gray family could have pursued the matter in federal court, where such caps don’t apply and judgments can reach into the scores of millions of dollars. To hold the city accountable under the applicable federal statute, the Gray family’s attorneys would have to prove not only that the officers’ actions or inaction caused Gray’s injuries but that they reflected the policy or custom of the Baltimore Police Department.”
The Sun continues, “Given that the U.S. Justice Department is presently investigating — at the mayor’s request — whether Baltimore police engage in a pattern and practice of civil rights violations, the city might well have figured that the Gray family’s chances at a mega-verdict, should the case go to trial, were unusually high.”
As the Sun put it, “The city is essentially conceding a vulnerability under federal civil rights law.”
The rest of the editorial assesses the risk but the key discussion would seem to be the combination of the facts of this case combined with the history of the Baltimore police.
The Sun wraps up their piece with: “Fairly compensating the Gray family for its loss is necessary, no doubt. So are vigorous and fair trials for the six officers. But the most important component of justice may be getting at the root causes of Baltimore’s unrest and the reasons why Freddie Gray’s death resonated so widely in the first place. When Mayor Rawlings-Blake takes questions about the settlement tomorrow , we expect she will discuss it in the context of the first two, but if she wants to keep the peace not just this week but into the future, she needs to talk much more about the third.”
The third part of that equation is the most important and will be the most difficult to come to terms with.
—David M. Greenwald reporting