Baltimore taxpayers have paid at least $16.8 million since July 2004 to settle lawsuits involving the city police department.
The cases range from garden-variety policy misconduct to a $6 million settlement in the case of Jeffrey Alston, who was paralyzed in the aftermath of a police stop in 1997, to a $2.5 million settlement of an employee bias suit filed by black officers.
Just how much is $16.8 million to a cash-strapped city?
“It can almost run some rec centers,” said City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. “Maybe five or 10 rec centers.”
“We really cannot, we really should not, be spending that kind of money,” said City Councilman James B. Kraft. “What else can I say?”
The settlement costs were compiled by the city solicitor’s office after five months of digging by reporter Brendan Kearney and requests filed by this newspaper under the Maryland Public Information Act.
But the numbers appear to be well short of the actual cost.
City Solicitor George A. Nilson warns that the settlement figures for the first two fiscal years included in his report are incomplete due to a change in the record-keeping system.
“It’s not just we missed a case or two. My sense is it’s a significant undercount,” he told The Daily Record.
That’s not all. The $16.8 million reported by the solicitor’s office does not include the city’s cost of defending those cases, some of the plaintiffs’ legal fees and expenses related to monitoring or compliance.
One more thing — the $16.8 million does not include settlements reached this year but still not approved by the Board of Estimates. Those pending settlements total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At a City Council hearing on Tuesday, when Mr. Kraft asked the police department’s chief legal counsel how many police misconduct lawsuits were still pending, he could not provide a number, saying “it’s a fluid process.”
This sounds like a problem spiraling out of control.
The numbers are bad enough based on what we know. What we don’t know threatens to worsen the problem exponentially. Also, there is no way to provide effective oversight or to devise a targeted approach to solving the problem without more information about what types of police misconduct are surfacing in the cases being settled and how that misconduct can be prevented in the future.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told the City Council on Tuesday that the solution is a combination of training, discipline and leadership, and he offered examples of some programs under way.
It’s hard to argue with your list, Mr. Commissioner, but we would add two more components to the solution — measurable results and accountability.
There’s an axiom of management that says “you get what you measure.” So let’s start measuring, which means we need complete and meaningful numbers and details — publicly disclosed and publicly debated — about the disposition of police litigation. Only then can specific problems be identified and actions taken to address them.
The City Council, which once again has been remiss in its oversight function, should insist on this approach. And those responsible for the progress or lack thereof should be held accountable.