Police brutality lawsuit cost county $30,000 before settlement reached

August 09, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The county government spent $30,000 defending a brutality suit against three police officers before agreeing to a sealed, out-of-court settlement last month, county officials said yesterday.

"The case had been going on for years, and I decided to settle because I believed it would cost less to settle than to go to trial," County Executive Charles I. Ecker said. "I think I saved the taxpayers money, but I cannot give out the figures to let them judge."

Prior to agreeing to settle a $6.5 million federal lawsuit against Officers Ricky Johnson, Victor Riemer and David Snow last month, the county spent $13,963.90 on attorney fees and $15,956.36 on other expenses related to the trial -- mostly the taking of depositions.

Two local attorneys familiar with the case, asking not to be identified, estimated it would have cost the county about $40,000 to go to trial and defend the suit, barring unforeseen complications.

Even then, "the absolute maximum" for a successful defense of the suit would have been $60,000, attorneys speculated.

"Of course, there is always the risk that you could lose," one attorney said, "although it appeared the county had a pretty good case going in."

The family of Mickey Bowie and his twin brother, the late Carl Jonathan Bowie, claimed in their suit that the three officers used excessive force against the twins during a January 1990 raid of a party at a Jessup motel. A grand jury and a police hearing panel found no evidence to support those charges, however.

As part of the settlement, the family agreed to drop their complaint against the officers.

The suit made no reference to the death of Carl Jonathan Bowie, who was found hanged on a baseball backstop at Oakland Mills High School five months after the Jessup raid. Subsequent investigations by state police and a county grand jury found no evidence of foul play. Investigators also said there was not enough evidence to confirm or deny an initial finding of suicide.

Mr. Ecker said he followed the advice of the county's five-member risk management committee in agreeing to settle the case and in agreeing to keep the terms of the settlement confidential. He said that the committee suggested parameters for the settlement of the suit and that he told county attorneys "to negotiate within that limit."

County Council members were not told in advance of the settlement and have not been given details of the settlement.

"Without having all the information that went into the decision -- which I don't -- there is no way to look at the end product and judge" whether the county made the right decision, said Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass. "I will not second-guess it."

The administration has generally briefed councilmembers on confidential matters, but "we were not included at all" in this decision, the 1st District Democrat said. "To have this administration be for open government and then seal the decision makes it all the more puzzling."

Ms. Pendergrass worries that the real cost of the secret agreement may not be dollars, but a loss of confidence in the Police Department. She had assumed the county would go to trial since the officers earlier were cleared of wrongdoing. The DTC settlement and the sealing of the settlement raises disturbing questions, she believes.

"Is this trade-off in dollars commensurate with the cost in terms of the loss of confidence in the police?" she asked. "How much do we lose by settling [secretly]. I don't know. I don't have the facts."

Councilman Darrel Drown said it did not bother him that the amount of the settlement was sealed. Making it public tells potential litigants the county is willing to pay and invites nuisance suits, he says.

What bothers him, he said, is that by settling the suit secretly instead of going to trial, the county may be giving the impression the officers did something wrong.

"We have the best-managed, best-run Police Department in the country, but this sends out the wrong message," said the 2nd District Republican. "It implies that there are no constraints, that our police are out of control, that they are ineffectual and not doing their job properly. There is nothing further from the truth. . . . All this [settlement] does is encourage the next guy who comes along."

County Executive Ecker thinks otherwise. "The charges were dropped and the officers completely exonerated," he said. Mr. Ecker also believes that the county's use of its own money instead purchasing liability insurance discourages suits and has saved the county millions of dollars.

The county created its own risk-management fund 10 years ago when liability insurance premiums soared. Since that time, the county has paid out less in claims than it would have paid in premiums, county officials say.

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