In a move that may finally break up the stronghold of protection that blankets police officers when accused of brutality or death, the city of Baltimore has instated a new policy that may make officers liable for payouts to victims.
The Forward Observer reports that the Baltimore police union recently sent an email to members in which union President Gene Ryan informed them of the change, which may force officers to think twice about using deadly force.
Ryan wrote that the city has “generally supported” officers in the past by paying out punitive damages as well as compensatory damages in civil jury trials, but the new city solicitor, Andre Davis, has altered the policy.
Davis, a former federal judge, was hired by the city in September. One of his foremost tasks will be representing the city as it reforms the Police Department under a federal court-enforced consent decree with the Department of Justice.
Here is the email sent to members:
Many of our officers are sued for monetary damages by individuals they have arrested or have come in contact with. These lawsuits allege wrongdoing on the part of the officer and oftentimes allege that the officer acted with malice. Malice means that the officer’s alleged actions were motivated by a personal hatred towards the individual suing him or her. If the person suing the officer wins on the question of whether the officer committed a wrong, the Plaintiff can recover monetary damages to compensate him or her for any injury and/or expenses incurred resulting from the officer’s actions. If a jury finds that the officer acted with malice, the jury has the option to award punitive damages which are designed to punish the officer and to serve as a deterrent to the officer not to repeat the alleged wrongful conduct found to have occurred by the jury.
Most times, the officer who is being sued will dispute the allegations made by a Plaintiff and successfully defend a claim for punitive damages. However, many juries award punitive damages despite the lack of evidence of malice even in cases where the police officer has not been charged criminally and been found to have acted within the scope of his/her duties consistent with the rules and regulations of the Baltimore Police Department. In the past, the City of Baltimore has generally supported the officers by paying punitive damages as well as the compensatory damages awarded for the actual injury. 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. Since punitive damages cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, the successful citizen can file an attachment against your wages taking 25% of your net bi-weekly pay check [sic] until the amount of the punitive judgement is satisfied.
Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties.
And though police officers may decry this mandate as yet another hindrance to doing their job, many activists and community members see the policy shift as a welcome change.
The Baltimore Police Department is notoriously corrupt, not only being mandated to make changes by the Department of Justice, but also having been racked by several high-profile police-brutality cases, including that of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody sparked riots in the streets of Baltimore in 2015.
The city of Baltimore has paid out millions in damages for police misconduct in the last 10 years. Because the burden of proof in civil suits is lower than in criminal cases, families of police-brutality victims are often paid off by the city, which officers heretofore had no responsibility for paying.
Justin Fenton, a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, tweeted that this policy change is an “earthquake” that is blasting through the department.
The hope is that, as the police-union president said, Baltimore officers will “keep [the new policy] in mind as [they] go about performing [their] duties.”