City Solicitor Andre Davis says a letter issued Tuesday by Baltimore Police union president Gene Ryan that accused him of now making officers pay all punitive damages in job-related lawsuits from their own pockets was both “flatly wrong” and “deeply misleading.”
Ryan sent out a memo to unionized city police officers on Tuesday, as first reported by The Sun‘s Justin Fenton. The letter warned them that while the city has “generally supported” officers by covering payouts in past cases, including all punitive and compensatory damages awarded to an accuser by a jury, the policy has changed since Davis took over as the city’s top lawyer in September 2017.
“Police officers are now required to pay these punitive damage awards, which can amount to thousands of dollars, out of their own pockets,” the letter reads.
Furthermore, Ryan wrote, “since punitive damages cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, the successful citizen can file an attachment against your wages taking 25 percent of your bi-weekly pay check until the amount of the punitive judgment is satisfied. Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties.”
In a statement given to Baltimore Fishbowl Wednesday, Davis said Ryan is very mistaken. “I have made clear that I will consider on a case-by-case basis any officer’s request for indemnification as to a particular award of punitive damages,” he said, calling that “longstanding” policy for the Law Department.
“The FOP leadership’s message seems to be an attempt to dissuade officers from continuing to do their challenging jobs in good faith reliance on the City’s contractual and state law obligation to protect them from baseless lawsuits,” he added. “This is unfortunate and troubling.”
Davis also took issue with another claim from Ryan’s memo: that “many juries award punitive damages despite the evidence of malice even in cases where the police officer has not been criminally charged and been found to have acted within the scope of his/her duties.”
Davis offered one example as rebuttal: “Recent cases where punitive damages were awarded include a case where the jury reasonably found that a police sergeant spit on an arrestee.” (That sergeant was also convicted of second-degree assault and misconduct in office.)
Misconduct allegations can be expensive. Baltimore paid out well over $1.2 million in settlements in 2017 alone. Among those payments: $600,000 from the city to the family of Tyrone West, who died in the hospital in 2013 after being beaten and pepper-sprayed by police after a traffic stop; $400,000 for Shaun Mouzon, who was shot multiple times by officers after driving away from a traffic stop four years earlier; and $110,000 for a family who said they were falsely imprisoned and arrested after a chaotic traffic stop in South Baltimore.
Davis did say note that such egregious examples are “rare.” In situations where the Law Department agrees with an accused officer that the damages awarded by a jury were “awarded inappropriately,” he said he is “committed to doing everything possible to have those awards overturned on appeal.”
The city solicitor, a former federal appellate judge, said Baltimore has long adhered to Maryland’s Local Government Tort Claims Act, which shields localities from having to pay for all punitive damage awards against employees.
“Employees, including police officers, who no doubt have the most difficult job in government, are not privileged to inflict gratuitous injury on others without personal consequences to themselves,” he said.
At the mayor’s press briefing, Davis reiterated that stance with a chucke: “If you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it?”
He also pointed out that most cases involving police misconduct allegation end in settlements, before they can make it to sentencing by jury. “To my knowledge, no Baltimore police officer has ever paid punitive damages as the result of a jury.”
The police union did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Davis’ remarks.
This story has been updated.