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Baltimore approves Gray family payout: How common are such settlements?

The $6.4-million payout is one of the largest in a police death case in years, though it comes just months after Eric Garner’s family was issued $5.9 million in New York City.

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    Protesters block traffic on Pratt Street as protests moved into the street on the first day of pretrial motions for six police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md., Sept. 2, 2015.
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The city of Baltimore agreed Wednesday to pay $6.4 million to the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose death from an injury in police custody in April gripped the nation's attention.

The settlement comes as another controversy in the Gray case, “with some Baltimore leaders saying the move will help heal the city and others calling it premature,” reports The Baltimore Sun.

For one, the payout is one of the largest of its kind in recent years, though it comes only months after New York City paid the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being put in a white police officer's chokehold, $5.9 million in July.

In 2001, the city of Chicago settled a wrongful death lawsuit by the family of LaTanya Haggerty, a black woman who was shot to death by a police officer who thought her cellphone was a weapon, for $18 million.

In some ways, the Freddie Gray settlement is emblematic of the rising cost of resolving police misconduct claims, particularly in Baltimore, where officials have paid about $5.7 million over police brutality lawsuits since 2011, reports the Sun. This is millions more than what was paid in "other sim­il­arly-sized cities like Fort Worth and Austin, Texas," according to The National Journal.

An investigation by The Wall Street Journal this year found:

The 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million last year in settlements and court judgments in police misconduct cases, up 48 percent from $168.3 million in 2010.

City officials said in a statement that the latest settlement neither resolves any factual disputes nor constitutes an admission of liability on local authorities, calling it “an important measure of closure to the family, the community, and the city.”

Some indeed hailed the agreement as an important step in rebuilding trust between citizens and government. “It's a big step toward a different type of policing and a relationship with the community that deters misconduct,” Douglas Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland, told The Associated Press.

But other experts disagreed, saying such payouts do little to advance the conversation on police misconduct.

“It's all too easy to take public money and hand it over to people and say, ‘Well, this is a big aberrational mistake and we're going to make it good,’ ” Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told the AP.

The decision to settle – particularly as Gray’s family had yet to file an official lawsuit – could also affect whether a judge decides to move the trials for the six officers charged in Mr. Gray’s death out of Baltimore, reports the AP.

Lt. Gene Ryan, the head of Baltimore's police union, slammed the agreement. “To suggest that there is any reason to settle prior to the adjudication of the pending criminal cases is obscene and without regard to the fiduciary responsibility owed to the taxpaying citizens of the city,” he said.

Defense attorneys for the six police officers, who face charges ranging from assault to manslaughter to second-degree murder in Mr. Gray;s death, have asked for the trial to be moved to another jurisdiction, arguing that pre-trial publicity strips the current venue of its ability to hold a fair trial. Judge Barry Williams will hear their arguments on Thursday.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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