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A contingent of Baltimore Riot Police. Photo credit to Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons. No license / public domain.

The Baltimore police union is balking at the suggestion that nine of its officers may be held financially responsible for damages incurred while acting with “actual malice” while effecting arrests.

In a memo released Tuesday, the union accused the city of changing its tune and inventing a new policy. But, writes the Baltimore Sun, City Solicitor Andre Davis said the stipulation is no recent development.

According to Davis, individual officers could potentially be pressed for payments stemming from their own misconduct for decades. The only aspect that’s changed, he claims, is the transparency underlying the policy and its implementation.

“Unfortunately, as I’m sure you know, right now the city and the police department have an adversarial relationship with the [Fraternal Order of Police,” said Davis in a statement. An article from the Sun notes that Baltimore is ‘involved in litigation with the union over pensions and overtime and is in the midst of contentious contract negotiations.’

Solicitor Davis seems to be taking an unusual route for an official: holding individual officers responsible for their misdeeds.

Despite what may be an excellent way to build trust between law enforcement and disenfranchised communities, union officials have launched a counterattack. Representatives for the union claim that juries aren’t always capable of reaching the “right” verdict in every case alleging misconduct – and that holding police liable for damages could deter new recruits from joining the force.

Union president Lt. Gene Ryan told members on Tuesday that the city, which has historically paid punitive damages levied against officers, is shifting its stance. Davis, a former federal judge and recent entrant to his office, changed the policy after coming on as solicitor.

“What this means is that police officers are now required to pay these punitive damages awards, which can amount to thousands of dollars,” said Ryan on Tuesday. “Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties.”

While Ryan seems to be construing the policy as a recent development, Davis’s predecessor, former City Solicitor George Nilson, confirmed its longstanding existence.

As Nilson explained, Baltimore typically pays damages in cases wherein officers could be held liable for damages but weren’t found to be acting with malice.

“In the past, the city law department has appropriately refused to pay malice judgments,” Nilson said.

A Fraternal Order of Police monument in Baltimore. The FOP is currently butting heads with the city over whether officers should be responsible for paying punitive damages out of pocket. Image via Smash the Iron Cage/Wikimedia Commons. (CCA-BY-4.0)

But even Nilson’s acknowledgment doesn’t mean that officers have routinely been held responsible for their actions. One example mentioned by Nilson, and recounted in the Sun, refers back to an incident in 2003. A jury determined that a Baltimore police officer had to pay one Albert Mosley $44 million following a jail-cell encounter which left the man permanently disabled.

The city, initially acting in line with its policy, refused to pay on behalf of an officer who’d acted with malice. But when the case concluded and the officer’s attorneys settled for $1 million, Baltimore stepped in to show its sympathy.

“We said, ‘You proved malice and we don’t pay for malice,’” said Nilson. “They started coming after the officer’s house and wages and that prompted us to say, ‘OK, the officer is suffering.’ We took mercy on the officer and we did pay a significant amount.”

None of the nine officers who may be responsible for their own damages have been publicly named, but the Sun article, listed in the ‘Sources’ section, refers to several well-known cases.

Sources

Baltimore police union balks at policy requiring officers to pay some legal damages themselves

City, FOP in war of words over who pays punitive damages

 

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