While Baltimore weighs police gag-order changes, city to pay $75K settlement for woman’s violent 2014 arrest

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Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

Two days after Baltimore lawmakers heard emotional testimony about the city’s use of “gag orders” in settlements for lawsuits against police, officials are set to approve a $75,000 payment to a woman who allegedly was choked, lost a tooth and called a racial slur during a 2014 arrest.

The settlement goes before the city’s Board of Estimates—made up of the mayor, council president, comptroller, city solicitor and director of the Department of Public Works–tomorrow morning.

What’s more, it’s the first one that may be openly discussed by the board’s members. This afternoon, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the board is now making police misconduct settlements “non-routine,” meaning they’ll receive individual discussion when the board meets. And the mayor is inviting settlement recipients to share the details of what happened to them during public testimony when the Board of Estimates meets.

In the settlement being weighed tomorrow, Brenda McDowell, of East Baltimore, sued the Baltimore Police Department and the city in 2017, three years after she was arrested by police outside her home in East Baltimore’s Milton-Montford neighborhood.

Per her complaint filed in federal U.S. District court, McDowell said was on her front porch when BPD Officer Charles Grimes and an unidentified female officer showed up to investigate a report of a woman with a gun. McDowell stepped into the street to get her granddaughter, who was playing near an intersection when police arrived.

McDowell alleged Grimes grabbed her arm from behind, “called her a racial slur” and ordered another officer to search her. “After the search failed to reveal a weapon or other contraband, Officer Grimes began choking McDowell while yelling ‘give me the gun, give me the gun,'” the complaint says. And when McDowell broke free of the chokehold, Grimes “pushed her onto a parked car, causing her to lose her balance and fall onto the street.” When she stood up, Grimes “choked her again to the point that she lost consciousness and had a seizure,” also losing her tooth and being left with bruises on her arm and neck.

Grimes arrested McDowell–while again calling her a racial slur–while she was being treated in the back of an ambulance, the complaint says. He told her his sergeant had ordered the arrest.

McDowell was ultimately jailed overnight and released the next day. Prosecutors later dropped charges of second-degree assault and resisting arrest–there were no gun charges–in January 2015 after Grimes failed to show up to McDowell’s court hearing.

Grimes sued in August 2017, accusing Grimes of assault, battery, gross negligence, false imprisonment, violations of her constitutional rights and more. BPD filed, unsuccessfully, to dismiss the case. After more than a year of litigation, the two sides agreed to meet for a settlement conference.

We’ve reached out to McDowell’s attorney, Fareed Hayat, for comment on the outcome of the case.

BPD did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the settlement or Grimes’ employment status. Salary records from fiscal 2018, the latest year for which they’re available, indicate Grimes has worked as a city police officer since 2000, and made nearly $121,000 in gross pay in 2018, including $40,000 in overtime.

City lawmakers and the mayor’s office have sparring this week over the use of “gag orders,” which city attorneys have for years required police-misconduct plaintiffs to sign if they want to receive their full settlements. The non-disparagement clauses threaten to withhold money from settlements if recipients speak publicly on their cases.

That’s what happened to Ashley Overbey Underwood, who was denied half of a $63,000 settlement for a brutality lawsuit in 2014 after she commented online about her case.

Baltimore Brew and Ashley Overbey Underwood sued the city over its use of the orders in June 2017, saying they violate accusers’ right to free speech and hamper the press from adequately reporting on allegations of police abuse. A panel of three federal appellate judges eventually ruled in their favor in a 2-1 vote;City Solicitor Andre Davis appealed for a full panel of 15 appellate judges to reconsider the case, but they declined.

In the wake of that court decision, Council President Brandon Scott and 13th District Councilwoman Shannon Sneed introduced legislation that would force city attorneys to stop using gag orders and require they publicly disclose details about misconduct and discrimination lawsuits brought against the BPD. The legislation would also require them to share how much was paid to end each lawsuit.

Attempting to get out in front of the legislation, Young on Monday announced an executive order promising an end to the practice, but free-speech and police-reform advocates criticized that as disingenuous, saying a ban on gag orders must be codified in city law instead of tied to a revocable order from the mayor.

Hours later, after locals shared stories of discriminatory policing and abuse by police officers in a Public Safety Committee hearing at City Hall, six council members unanimously approved Sneed and Scott’s bill, sending it to a full vote.

Young today announced the city’s spending board is inviting settlement plaintiffs to address officials at weekly Board of Estimates meetings, sharing a letter from Davis recommending it. Davis, the city’s chief attorney, wrote that it was apparent from the council committee hearing that “some citizens believe they don’t have sufficient opportunities to speak their truth to the powerful. As a result, we need to afford other opportunities for residents to do so.”

Asked about the olive branch to plaintiffs, ACLU senior staff attorney David Rocah, who testified in favor of the council bill Monday, wrote in an email today that “we welcome any steps forward regarding transparency, but no one should think that this is an adequate or meaningful substitute” for legislation, which the mayor and Davis have pushed against.

“That unconscionable practice has already been found to violate the 1st Amendment by the United States Court of Appeals, and the Mayor and City Solicitor should stop defending it, and stop seeking to perpetuate it,” Rocah said.

Ethan McLeod
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