Freddie Gray Settlement Gives Baltimore $6.4 Million Worth of Reasons to End Police Misconduct

Police misconduct settlements are on the rise in large metropolitan areas.

Protesters block traffic in Baltimore on Sept. 2, the first day of pretrial motions for six police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray. (Photo: Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

Sep 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Tuesday, Baltimore officials announced a tentative wrongful death settlement with the family of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered fatal injuries in police custody in April. Gray’s death—which an autopsy established was the result of an injury that occurred during a “rough ride” in the back of a police van—ignited riots in Baltimore and protests nationwide and was ruled a homicide.

The $6.4 million settlement, which will be finalized by a vote from the city’s Board of Estimates on Wednesday, is unrelated to the homicide charges pending against the six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest. Last week, a judge rejected a request to drop the charges against the officers, along with a motion to remove State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby from the case.

Baltimore is among the 10 cities nationwide with the largest police departments—which, in 2014, collectively paid $248.7 million in settlements and court judgments in police misconduct cases, according to data collected by The Wall Street Journal in July. That amount is up 48 percent from 2010, but consider this: These 10 cities—including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles—paid a total of $1.02 billion between 2010 and 2014, the study found.

That sum was used to settle allegations related to police beatings, shootings, and wrongful imprisonment. New York City paid the most in misconduct cases, while Baltimore ranked ninth, behind Phoenix, Arizona, and before Miami-Dade, Florida.

The increasing awareness of wrongful convictions, as well as the greater presence of video evidence captured by bystanders or body cameras, is likely contributing to the growing cost of settlements, as well as the rise in the number of cases brought against police departments.

Video footage may have been instrumental in helping Eric Garner’s family win a $5.9 million settlement with New York City in July. Garner died after being put in a choke hold by a New York City police officer in Staten Island; the officer accused Garner of selling untaxed cigarettes. Similarly the mother of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who died after being stunned with a Taser and beaten by police in Fullerton, California, in 2011—that event was also caught on video—won a $1 million settlement.

But other high-profile shooting cases have had mixed results for victims’ relatives. The family of black teen Michael Brown, who was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, must wait another year for their wrongful death lawsuit to go to trial. The family is seeking $75,000 in damages and legal fees. In November 2014, a judge in Cleveland, Ohio, approved a $3 million settlement to the families of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were shot 137 times after a 22-mile chase by 13 officers. That payment, along with police misconduct settlements in many cities, falls on Cleveland taxpayers.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of Baltimore’s police union, called the Gray settlement announcement a “ridiculous reaction” that would “interrupt any progress made toward restoring the relationship between the members of the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore City government.”

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake emphasized that the settlement was unrelated to the criminal proceedings against the officers.

"This settlement is being proposed solely because it is in the best interest of the city and avoids costly and protracted litigation that would only make it more difficult for our city to heal,” Rawlings-Blake said at a press conference.