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Baltimore officials defend timing, amount of Gray settlement

The Baltimore Board of Estimates unanimously voted to approve a $6.4 million settlement with Freddie Gray’s family on Wednesday, a decision city officials stressed was aimed at providing closure to Gray’s family and the community as well as avoiding years of civil litigation.

Attorney Billy Murphy of Murphy, Falcon and Murphy, second from left, speaks about the $6.4 million settlement between the Freddie Gray family and the City of Baltimore on Wednesday. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Attorney Billy Murphy of Murphy, Falcon and Murphy, second from left, speaks about the $6.4 million settlement between the Freddie Gray family and the City of Baltimore on Wednesday. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Solicitor George Nilson and other officials strongly emphasized that the civil settlement protects federal litigation – in which there is no cap on damages – but is not an admission of liability, nor is it a reflection on the guilt or innocence of the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest in April. Gray died from spinal injuries he suffered during his arrest and transport by the officers.

Criminal trials for the officers are scheduled to begin next month in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

“This settlement is about fiscal calculation, legal risk and what is best for the city of Baltimore,” Rawlings-Blake said at the city spending panel’s weekly meeting.

Of the $6.4 million, $2.8 million will be paid out during fiscal year 2016, and the remaining $3.6 million will be paid in fiscal year 2017. The settlement was reached at the end of August after three-and-a-half months of negotiations with Gray’s family, Nilson said.

“It spares us all of having the scab of April of this year picked over and over and over for five or six years to come,” he said.

Asked if the settlement could send a message to attorneys and plaintiffs that suing police officers is profitable, city officials said it will not set a precedent. Instead, cases will continue to be considered on an individual basis, they said.

“We looked at the extraordinary circumstances, which truly are unique,” Nilson said. “I won’t say it was a perfect storm, but it’s a situation that’s not likely to repeat itself.”

Body cameras

The settlement also is in Baltimore’s best interest because it should help bring a measure of peace to the community, Rawlings-Blake said.

An important step toward repairing the fractured relationship between police and citizens will be the implementing of body cameras to record officers’ interactions with the public, said William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., a lawyer for Gray’s family, at a press conference following the Board of Estimates’ meeting.

The months-long negotiations between the city and Gray’s family included discussions of a plan to launch a pilot body-camera program as soon as October, said Murphy, of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy in Baltimore. The pilot program will deploy officers with body cameras in the Western District, including the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester where Gray lived.

Murphy said he hopes to see the cameras implemented “as quickly and as responsibly as humanly possible” in order to return civility to the city. The effort will honor Gray’s memory and will have a calming influence in a city where both citizens and police remain suspicious of one another, he said.

“These cameras, we hope, will prevent future tragic interactions between police and citizens,” Murphy said.

A question of timing

After the Rawlings-Blake administration announced the settlement Tuesday, Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, called the timing a “ridiculous reaction” that would disrupt any progress made toward restoring a relationship between city government and police.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams is scheduled Thursday to hear arguments by the officers’ lawyers in the criminal case seeking a change of venue for the trials.

If anything, Murphy said, the timing of the announcement was chosen with the goal of preventing violence in the city as the criminal proceedings progress.

“You’re going to get criticized no matter whether you announce it before or after,” he said. “There’s always going to be a controversy.”

Rawlings-Blake acknowledged on Wednesday that it is “relatively unusual” for the city to announce a settlement in an alleged police brutality case before a verdict has been reached in a related criminal trial but said Ryan’s statements “baffled” her.

Because the civil settlement has no legal bearing on the criminal case, she said, the only impact of the settlement on the officers is to protect them from civil liability.

“What this does is ensure that at the end of the criminal trial, it is the end for these officers, whatever the outcome is, so they know that on the other side … there will be closure,” Rawlings-Blake said.

The officers are not named in the settlement, and they’re not signatories to the settlement, Nilson added. They’re free to individually opt out of it if they prefer, but would then open themselves up to civil liability, Rawlings-Blake said.

Murphy said he is confident that announcement of the settlement will not prejudice the criminal proceedings. Assuming that knowledge of the settlement will sway potential jurors against the officers and that there aren’t enough citizens who can impartially weigh the evidence presented in court is unfair, he said.

“I think more of our city than that. I think more of the people of our city than that,” Murphy said.

About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.