Baltimore police routinely fend off suits

Allegations of wrongful death, wrongful termination

May 01, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

The family of a man who died three years ago while being chased by Baltimore police officers claims the cops forced him off a fence and sent him plummeting onto the highway below, where he was run over by a car. Then, the surviving relatives contend, the officers laughed.

The owner of a South Baltimore used-car lot says city police towed his cars without a warrant.

A female officer says she was discriminated against when male supervisors denied her request to work a second job.

A man sought $50 million after he was arrested on charges of drinking in public and urinating in an alley, claiming white officers singled him out because he was black.

And a former police helicopter pilot says he was forced from his job in 2007 after he complained about shoddy maintenance and training, alleging that his sergeant ordered him to fly to and land at the Baltimore County school that the sergeant's children attended.

These are federal lawsuits filed against the Baltimore Police Department and its commissioner in the past 16 months. A judge quickly dismissed the case involving drinking in public, but the rest are making their way through the litigation process. Even The Baltimore Sun has sued the city police — last year in state court, seeking access to information.

City police spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year defending cops in state and federal courts, many deemed frivolous by City Solicitor George Nilson. But some force taxpayers to shell out millions in claims.

A Circuit Court jury recently awarded $7.4 million to the family of a man arrested on a charge of urinating in public and who died two weeks afterward of injuries he suffered riding in a police van.

Nilson told me police are not being sued more now than in past years. But he complained about some of the settlements he's been forced to agree to in order to avoid years of expensive litigation. He said he agreed last week to pay a few thousand dollars to a man who suffered "a bump on his head" when officers pulled him from his car to arrest him.

A perusal of court filings shows many similar claims, such as the man who wanted $50 million after he was cited several times for holding an open container of alcohol. He filed his suit in handwriting, without benefit of an attorney, and admitted to his crimes while alleging sweeping civil rights violations for which he offered no proof.

Even though quickly dismissed, it cost the city time and money. It forced a judge to write a formal legal order, in which she had to decide the complaint was being filed under the equal protection clause before being able to dismiss it. The judge noted that since 1995, the man, Michael Pack, "has filed more than 70 civil cases in this court."

But even so, reading over the voluminous paperwork that fills files in the most recent civil cases in federal court offers an inside and unvarnished look at the Police Department. And in this limited perspective, it's an ugly sight.

Samuel K. Miller says city police recruited him in 2001 from a sheriff's department in Maricopa County, Ariz., to fly helicopter patrols over Baltimore. His suit says he routinely received evaluations rating his performance as excellent and above average, and was awarded a medal for valor in 2004. Two years later, he wrote a critical review of the unit that was supposed to go to a top commander but instead found its way to his sergeant.

Miller complained in the letter about lax training and maintenance, alleging that supervisors were routinely absent, that inexperienced pilots were being certified to fly and that the helicopters were being used for "dog and pony" shows outside the city's jurisdiction for the personal benefit of the very sergeant who had intercepted his letter.

In February 2007, Miller said he was transferred to a uniformed foot post at the Inner Harbor, for which he received less pay for a job he described as "more physically arduous and more dangerous" than flying a helicopter. He said he was forced to resign.

The complaint seeks $5 million and reinstatement to the force. The city has not responded to the allegations, but if the part about flying the helicopter to the school is true, it shows that using the expensive chopper for personal benefit was common long before it was used to help a state delegate propose to his girlfriend during a mock police raid aboard a boat last year.

Internal spats that cost money, waste time and interfere with the department's mission of saving lives and preventing crime is but one troubling aspect of the court filings. Abuse of power that leads to someone's death is quite another.

And that brings us to the police chase and the overpass.

In 2007, a police spokesman said John Gideon Cook IV ran from plainclothes officers who had stopped him on Harlem Avenue, believing that he had a gun. They chased him to a U.S. 40 overpass in West Baltimore.

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