Each year, thousands of victims of police brutality receive sizable settlements for the injuries doled out by the hands of cops. The officers in question may or may not face punishment for their actions, but the settlements are paid by the municipality employing those law enforcement personnel. That’s now changing in Baltimore.
A change in policy makes police officers liable for the payments made to victims of their behavior.
A New Solicitor in Town
Baltimore has a new city solicitor as of last year. Andre Davis, a former federal judge, changed the city’s former policy of paying out compensatory and punitive damages awarded in civil trials against police officers.
Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore police union, sent out a warning email to members, which reads in part:
“Since Andre Davis has been named as our new City Solicitor, he has adopted a policy of not paying any punitive damages despite the fact that the Police Officer has been found to have acted appropriately by the office of the State’s Attorney as well as the Baltimore Police Department. What this means is that police officers are now required to pay these punitive damage awards, which can amount to thousands of dollars, out of their own pockets.”
Ryan closes the email with: “Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties.”
Police Acting with Malice
If a person sues a police officer and alleges the officer acted with malice and wins the case, the bad cop is reminded of that incident with every paycheck. Acting with malice means the officer’s actions derived from “personal hatred” of the plaintiff. If the plaintiff is awarded punitive damages, he or she can take up to one-quarter of an officer’s pay until the amount is satisfied.
A police officer can’t simply file bankruptcy to avoid payment, since punitive damages – awarded to punish particularly egregious behaviors – aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy court.
High Levels of Police Brutality in Baltimore PD
The Baltimore Police Department is notorious both for the amount of corruption in its ranks and its high levels of police brutality.
The death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year old black man who died in police custody in 2015 after complaining of breathing difficulties and not receiving medical attention, made international headlines. When he was placed in the police van, his seat belt was not fastened, a violation of department policy. By the time the van arrived at the police department, it was obvious something was very wrong with Gray. He was taken to the hospital, where he died as a result of a severe injury to his spinal cord.
The city erupted in rioting, and six officers were charged in his death. However, three of the officers were acquitted, and charges were dropped against the remaining three.
In the past decade, Baltimore taxpayers have shelled out millions of dollars in police brutality claims. These civil suits have a lower burden of proof than do criminal cases. The officers responsible previously never had to pay a penny to any of their victims.
Will Officers Quit?
The unknown with the new policy is whether it will cause officers to quit their jobs rather than face the possibility of personal liability for punitive damages.
On the one hand, not engaging in brutality is “something they should keep in mind” while on the job, but the concept of personal liability for incidents occurring in the workplace isn’t a concern for most employees in any occupation. That liability is generally covered by the employer’s insurance policies.
Davis says there’s been no actual change in the law. The law has never required the city to pay punitive damages, but it has done so historically. The city says it will deal with the punitive damage issue on a case-by-case basis.
Davis says “the vast majority” of such cases are settled, so punitive damages are not even discussed. Currently, five officers are dealing with a punitive damages issue, and still don’t know whether they will have to pay the damages out of pocket, although the case was completed six months ago.
If they do have to pay such damages, it will cost each officer $40k each. It was this situation that triggered the police union president’s email.
Victim of Baltimore or any other police officer brutality? We can help. We sue police officers, police departments, and cities for the misconduct of officers that result in serious harm or death. Call us and learn about compensation and your civil rights. 866.836.4684 OR CONNECT ONLINE