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City Solicitor George A. Nilson. (File photo)

Two-year tab for police cases: $4.5M

Settlements were reached in 118 alleged misconduct claims

Baltimore has paid out approximately $4.5 million to settle allegations of police misconduct in the last two fiscal years, according to data obtained by The Daily Record through a Maryland Public Information Act request.

The settlement amounts in the 118 cases range from $155 to $500,000 given to an elderly couple who were falsely arrested on charges of kidnapping their own grandson.

More than 70 percent of the settlements were for less than $25,000, meaning they do not need approval from the Board of Estimates, the five-member panel that must approve most city spending. Thirteen cases settled for $100,000 or more, which the Baltimore City Law Department refers to as “outliers.” The outliers from fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2013 add up to more than $2.5 million, or more than half of the total payouts.

The city paid out an average of $1.64 million per year from fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2013, according to Suzanne Sangree, chief of police legal affairs within the Law Department. By comparison, New York paid an average of $96.4 million annually in police settlements and trial awards from 1999 to 2008; Chicago paid $39.1 million a year from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2009; and Philadelphia paid an average of $9.2 million per year from fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2009.

City budget officials in March projected the city would need $22 million to cover expenses from police lawsuits over the next 10 years.

“That would be a good, aspirational number if you added up settlements, judgments and the cost of defense,” City Solicitor George A. Nilson said Wednesday.

The fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2013 settlements served as the case studies for the law department’s “teachable moments” program, an initiative started by Nilson three years ago that analyzes police misconduct litigation to find patterns of behavior that can be addressed in one-on-one meetings with officers or as part of police training. The memos for the program were written by Sangree, who shifted to legal affairs in December after six years as chief solicitor.

Both Sangree and Nilson said it is too early to assess the impact of the program, in part because settlements often are reached several years after the underlying incident occurs. State law requires potential plaintiffs to notify the city of the incident within 180 days but most have up to three years to actually file suit, and getting to trial could take a few more years. The settlements can come at any point in the process.

Sangree and Nilson also hope to see an impact of a “vastly improved” police disciplinary process; Sangree oversees the prosecution of officers after they have been investigated and charged with misconduct.

In fiscal year 2012, 8 percent of officers accused of misconduct who elected to have a disciplinary hearing were found guilty, according to Sangree. That number jumped to 77 percent last fiscal year and is at 88 percent in the current fiscal year, she said. Both she and Nilson said the increase is a reflection of better prosecution, not more guilty officers.

“These outlier cases are generally caused by bad behavior by police,” she said, referring to settlements of more than $100,000. “And so having an effective discipline process should, a couple years down the line, greatly reduce the civil liability that the department faces. Once you have effective discipline for bad actors, then that changes the culture of the department.”

For City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a change cannot come soon enough. Young, the president of the Board of Estimates, has said he thinks the city is spending too much on settlements and regularly votes against them.

“He’s still disappointed every time one comes to the board,” said Lester Davis, Young’s spokesman.

Young often speaks to police recruits, but he continues to hear city residents’ complaints about “customer service” issues from officers, according to Davis.

“When the city is writing millions of dollars in checks for wayward officers, it has an effect on the whole city,” he said.

Potential settlements are discussed and debated each week by a committee composed of Nilson and a handful of deputies, including Sangree. The committee typically has “pretty vigorous debates over settlements,” Nilson said, reviewing on average each week two settlements of less than $5,000 and up to 10 settlements of more than $5,000.

“Our litigation approach has been … and continues to be, we need to appropriately and aggressively defend these cases,” Nilson said.

Nilson’s office represents the police department and commissioner when they are named as defendants in lawsuits. Individual officers are represented by lawyers from two Baltimore law firms — Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner P.A., which also represents the police union, and Whiteford Taylor Preston LLP, which was chosen through a competitive bidding process, according to Nilson. The contracts expire June 30; Nilson said a decision will be made soon whether to extend them or put out a new request for proposals.

Michael L. Marshall, a member at Schlachman Belsky and a regular at the settlement committee meetings, said a majority of his cases settle.

“It’s not just, ‘Pay the money,’” said Marshall. “The solicitor and the people on the settlement committee are very careful stewards of the city’s money.”

Domenic Iamele, who has represented plaintiffs in 30 police misconduct cases since 1995, agreed. Iamele settled a total of five police misconduct cases in fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2013 for a total of more than $270,000, with $200,000 coming from a September 2012 settlement stemming from an officer striking his client in the face.

“They are certainly watchdogs of the city’s money,” he said. “Nobody is gratuitously giving the city’s money away.”

Iamele, of Iamele & Iamele LLP in Baltimore, said that for every police misconduct case he takes, he rejects another.

“They vigorously defend the case,” he said. “It’s not something we take lightly.”