Outside Baltimore City Hall on New Year’s Day, advocates, city officials and mayoral candidates took turns reading accounts of police brutality from victims who requested anonymity out of fear that they would lose settlement money by breaking nondisparagement agreements with the city.
Speaking to more than 40 advocates and victims of police brutality, Deputy City Solicitor Dana P. Moore said that Baltimore’s Law Department would not enforce any previous nondisparagement agreements and that the city will abide by a new City Council ordinance prohibiting any new gag orders.
“They will not come back,” Moore said of the nondisparagement, or gag, clauses. “The law does not allow us. Whatever we think about the law, it’s clear.”
Moore’s announcement was a shift from recent comments from the Law Department and City Solicitor Andre Davis, who previously said the new city ordinance was unenforceable because it conflicts with the Baltimore City Charter. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s spokesperson, Lester Davis, also last month said the mayor would not enforce the new ordinance, which he called “illegal.”
Meredith Curtis Goode of the ACLU of Maryland asked Moore if the Law Department planned to put the ban on nondisparagement agreements in writing. Moore said the Law Department had no plans to do so.
“No, I don’t think we’ll put the new policy in writing,” Moore said. “We have the legislation.”
Following Moore’s comments to the crowd, Tawanda Jones, from the Justice for Tyrone West Coalition, said she won’t be convinced the Law Department has stopped using nondisparagement agreements until the department issues a statement.
“Until I see a statement in black and white, it don’t count,” said Jones, whose brother Tyrone West died in 2013 in an altercation with Baltimore police during a traffic stop. “To me, it’s a lip service until we see a factual statement.”
David Rocah, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said in an interview that he is encouraged by Moore’s comments that the city will follow the new ordinance barring nondisparagement agreements. He added that he appreciates the Law Department’s effort to clear up any lingering confusion and to tell victims of police brutality that they can speak publicly.
“I think it’s a positive development that they are complying with the law and the First Amendment,” Rocah said. “It’s particularly important they’re reaching out to people who previously signed these nondisparagement agreements because they were obviously continuing (to create) fear and confusion. So this is a positive step.”
Attendees at the gathering Wednesday outside City Hall, including City Council President Brandon Scott, mayoral candidates Rikki Vaughn and Catalina Byrd and Baltimore Ceasefire’s Erricka Bridgeford, read anonymous victims’ accounts of police brutality. In one account of a 2013 incident, a 911 call to report a family member’s mental health crisis resulted in the family member being shot dead. In another letter, a 12-year-old said he had been doing homework when police officers burst into his house and pointed guns at him; the boy said he was unsure why the officers entered his house.
Despite the Law Department’s announcement that it will no longer use nondisparagement agreements, some people at the demonstration said they worried the city could bring the agreements back at a later date. Several people who said they were victims of police brutality, and whose accounts were read outloud by others, said they still can’t talk publicly because of old gag orders.
“We actually had to stop seeing our counselor because we don’t want to breach our contract and owe people money,” City Council President Brandon Scott read from a letter by an anonymous victim, in reference to an incident seven years ago. “It’s unconstitutional what they’re doing to poor black folks. When you take a voice away, it’s a harsh punishment.”
Speaking to the demonstrators, Moore said that while the issue of nondisparagement agreements has been resolved “politically and legally,” she said she wanted to make sure all victims feel comfortable speaking out about their experiences.
“In my heart, and y’all’s heart, it’s not settled,” Moore said. “As long as anyone feels that they cannot come and speak, it’s not settled. What I’m here to tell you is the Law Department is not going backwards to old settlement agreements.”
Attempts to reach the city solicitor and the mayor’s spokesperson for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.