The Freddie Gray $6.4 million settlement is big, but will it send right message?

Baltimore will pay the family of Freddie Gray $6.4 million to settle all civil claims. It's part of a trend nationwide, and the hope is that settlements in police misconduct cases will spur reform.

Bryan Woolston/Reuters
Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby (c.) leaves the courthouse last week after the first day of pretrial motions for six police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Baltimore officials have reached a $6.4 million wrongful death settlement with the family of Mr. Gray.

The $6.4 million that Baltimore has agreed to pay the family of Freddie Gray to head off a potential wrongful death civil lawsuit is unusually large. But the pattern of paying settlements – and sometimes large ones – in cases of police misconduct appears to be only gaining momentum.

By one analysis, the settlement money paid out by the 10 American cities with the largest police forces increased by 48 percent from 2010 to 2014, to nearly $250 million. Data on the topic are patchy, and the circumstances of each payout are unique, but the sheer amount of money raises questions about whether the settlements are sending the right message to police departments. 

While the purpose of a settlement is, first and foremost, to resolve a civil rights lawsuit that may be imminent or ongoing, it can also serve larger purposes – in particular, grabbing the attention of the police department and stimulating reform, experts say.

Some police departments have implemented significant reforms in response to large settlements, but the recent trend suggests that message often might not be getting through.

“The idea is that these large settlements could deter widespread police misconduct,” says Kami Chavis-Simmons, a former assistant United States attorney who now directs the criminal justice program at the Wake Forest University School of Law.

“That’s how people in a perfect world would like these settlements to work: the more you pay, the more careful you are,” she adds. “Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. It doesn’t seem to be a very effective tool for widespread reform.”

When Baltimore finishes paying the $6.4 million settlement it agreed to this week, it will have more than doubled the amount it has paid to settle police misconduct cases since 2011. From 2011 to 2014, it paid $5.7 million in settlements and court judgments, according to a Baltimore Sun report.

Even so, Baltimore comes in on the low end of the scale. For example:

  • Minneapolis paid $9.3 million during that same 2011-14 time period, with more than half coming from two cases, according to a Minnesota Public Radio report.
  • Boston paid $36 million between 2005 and 2015, with $31 million settling 22 cases and nine awards exceeding $1 million, The Boston Globe reported in May.
  • Los Angeles spent about $101 million between 2002 and 2011, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times.
  • Chicago paid more than $500 million in settlements between 2004 and 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times reported last year.
  • New York City spent $348 million to settle misconduct cases between 2006 and 2011, according to a study published last year in the New York University Law Review.

Overall, the 10 American cities with the largest police forces paid out $248.7 million in settlements and court judgments in 2014, up from $168.3 million in 2010, according to The Wall Street Journal. Those departments spent more than $1 billion in such cases over that five-year period. 

There are many caveats to these numbers. Car collisions involving the police are a major source of court settlements nationwide, experts say. In some cities, such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, police misconduct payouts have declined in recent years. And in some instances, the numbers represent settlements for old cases; 15 percent of Chicago’s figure is related to a former police commander who left in the early 1990s, for example.

“You could have Mother Theresa running a police department and you’re still going to have lawyers out there saying she’s not to be trusted and we’re going to sue,” William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, told the Journal.

But another factor has contributed to more successful civil lawsuits against police officers, experts say. Video-recording devices have become the go-to tool for both police and the public to document misconduct.

“When you have video cameras and cellphones, it could make it more likely that you’d have settlements that you wouldn’t have had before, because before you would have just taken the officer’s word,” says Professor Simmons.

Some police departments around the country have pursued reforms in the wake of large misconduct settlements. When the New York Police Department surpassed city hospitals in liability payouts in 2010, city comptroller Scott Stringer launched a program called ClaimStat to track legal claims.

“This really brings awareness, it brings accountability, it changes the police culture,” says Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer.

When he was a police officer, he says, his colleagues would often discuss high-profile settlements from around the country – if their superiors didn’t bring it up first.

“It serves as another not-so-friendly reminder of what we need to be doing to do a better job,” he says. “It shouldn’t have to come through a lawsuit for learning to occur, but [that] does expedite it.”

But others say police departments are shielded from pressure to reform because they usually pick up none of the costs. Governments paid 99.98 percent of what plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by the country’s 44 largest law enforcement agencies from 2006 through 2011, according to Joanna Schwartz, who wrote the NYU Law Review study.

Several experts note that it wouldn’t be feasible for officers or departments to pay the full cost of settlements. The six officers facing charges of contributing to the death of Mr. Gray while he was in Baltimore police custody would end up having to pay more than $1 million each. And the nature of the job makes police departments prone to legal challenges. 

But some have suggested that police departments should pay at least some of the settlement costs. 

It is “an approach worth experimenting with,” says Ms. Schwartz, also a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, in an interview. “You can’t know for sure, but it’s reasonable to assume that taking that money out of a police department’s budget would impose some pressure on the department to influence their officers’ behavior.”

Ultimately, Simmons says she hopes police departments will not need the threat of litigation to reform how their officers interact with their communities. “The loss of trust and legitimacy [in law enforcement] has a real tangible impact on public safety.”

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