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Baltimore paying the price for police mistakes

Baltimore City Solicitor, George A. Nilson

Payouts in police-related litigation cost the taxpayers of Baltimore more than $16.8 million from July 2004 through the beginning of March 2011, according to figures released to The Daily Record last week.

In addition to citizen run-ins with police, the tally includes at least a few systemic claims, such as the $2.5 million employment-bias settlement by black police officers that pushed last year’s total above $5.5 million.

The data, which took more than five months for the city law department to compile, is not complete, Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson said. In particular, he warned that the figures for the first two fiscal years represent an “undercount” because of a change in the recording system.

Nor do the totals include other costs, such as the city’s cost of defending cases, some of the plaintiffs’ legal fees, and monitoring or compliance expenses. And they exclude settlements that have been reached this year but not yet approved by the Board of Estimates, which total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But imperfect as the numbers are, they still show a significant drain on municipal resources during a period when larger economic realities have presented enough problems.

City Councilman James B. Kraft, chairman of the council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations and Public Safety and Health committees, had asked Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III for a response to Daily Record reports on the subject late last year. He seemed exasperated by the figures released last week and said he will raise the matter at this week’s budget hearings.

“We really cannot, we really should not be spending that kind of money,” he said. “What else can I say?”

“I’m not happy with it and I told the commissioner I’m not happy with it,” Kraft continued. “And from his standpoint — and I try to put myself in his shoes — you’ve got 3,000 people over there in the police department and you train them, you continue to train them, and you get one guy or a couple of people who do stupid stuff. … But what it ends up doing is exposing not only the department but the entire city. And at the end of the day, the citizens end up having to pay for it.”

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young could not be reached Friday, but his spokesman said the issue has been on Young’s radar.

“It hasn’t been a secret that he has been troubled by the amount of money that has been routinely paid out,” Lester Davis, the spokesman, said, adding that Young believes “better training” is part of the solution.

“He’ll certainly be asking questions” on Tuesday afternoon when the police department is scheduled to appear before the council regarding its budget, Davis said.

The amounts are part of the Police-Administration budget, which totaled about $35.6 million for the fiscal year that will end June 30, according to the mayor’s Fiscal 2012 executive summary of recommendations to the Board of Estimates. That budget also includes fiscal and grant management, information technology, workers’ compensation expenses, non-actuarial retirement benefits and utilities and a wide array of other expenses.

For fiscal 2012, the document shows a recommended 0.5 percent increase, to $35.8 million. That includes an additional $154,194 to support two additional positions in the Law Department. Funding for legal services overall would go up by more than $650,000, while the allocation for judgments would increase by $846,806.

Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for Bealefeld, said in an email Thursday evening that police memorial services would occupy him Friday and make it difficult to comment on the numbers. He did not return messages Friday. Ryan O’Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, did not return several messages last week.

Varies by year

Nilson, whose staff developed the summary report using the Star computer program, said he didn’t think “there’s anything startling in the numbers.”

“The numbers obviously make the point that police work generates here, as I’m sure it does in every American city, significant litigation and claims and that creates an expense for big cities and that’s a cost for every police department,” Nilson said.

Nilson admitted “the cost of police litigation is going up a bit,” while noting the total cost per fiscal year varied significantly over the period studied, for reasons that weren’t readily explicable.

From July 2004 through June 2005, the city paid out about $2.5 million in perhaps as few as 10 cases, by far the biggest of which was the Jeffrey Alston settlement, which totaled $6 million over three years.

Alston was paralyzed in the aftermath of a police stop in 1997 and won a $39 million jury verdict before settling with the city. He died in July 2005 before he received the final $2 million from the city.

In fiscal year 2006, the city paid out almost $3 million, spread over more than twice as many cases but with payments under the Alston structured settlement constituting almost two-thirds of the total.

Aside from the Alston case, which he said skewed the data, Nilson said the first two years’ figures should be ignored as incomplete.

“It’s not just we missed a case or two. My sense is it’s a significant undercount,” he said.

That was before the city began using the Star system, and “I was not about to order our people to drop everything” to look through historical files to tabulate a fuller picture for those years, Nilson said. He credited Karen Hornig, former chief legal counsel at the police department, for that transition.

Nilson’s predecessor, Ralph Tyler, who now is chief counsel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said by email that he was “unable to comment” for this story.

Payouts in fiscal 2007, which saw Tyler leave and Nilson arrive, fell between the previous two years, both in terms of number of cases resolved and total cost to the city.

In fiscal 2008, which began shortly after Bealefeld replaced former Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, the city settled 25 to 28 cases but only paid out a total of $410,560.

“I can’t explain that anomaly,” Nilson said.

The number of payments has risen in each fiscal year since then.

Only $1.54 million was paid out in fiscal 2009, and the city, at least through the end of February, is on a similar pace this year.

But fiscal year 2010 was anomalous in the opposite direction, with almost $5.6 million in payouts.

Nearly half of that total came in one case: the racial discrimination suit brought by black officers against the department. Sgt. Louis H. Hopson Jr. and his co-plaintiffs settled the case for $2.5 million.

An evolution

Nilson said the evolution of crime-fighting strategies, from zero tolerance and a focus on quality-of-life crimes to a focus on violent crime, may shed some light on the data.

“You’re less likely … to have innocent folks or relatively innocent folks caught up in police activity … than was the case before,” he said. “Now it’s a higher percentage of bad guys get caught up in police incidents. And they still have some claims when police are overly aggressive … but it’s a different universe of plaintiffs.”

Nilson also said while arrests are down, the number of suits filed hasn’t slackened, which he attributed, in part, to the bad economy.

Domenic Iamele, a Baltimore attorney who has sued police officers for the past 20 years in Baltimore, as well as represented officers in other situations, has a different explanation.

“People are more aware of their individual civil rights today than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” Iamele said when asked about the numbers last week. “Society today versus 10 or 15 years ago, when the cop would hit you with the truncheon and say ‘Get off the corner’ — there was a period of time when that conduct was OK. Today if that happens, somebody takes out a cellphone camera and records it. So there’s a changing society … for the better.”

Still, he said, “a lot of these cases are avoidable situations.”

Like Guglielmi and others, he favors increased training to foster harmony between police and citizens.

“It ain’t an easy job,” Iamele conceded. “That’s exactly why more training may be in order.”