At a time when City Hall is girding for another round of budget battles, spending on lawsuits filed against the Police Department is coming under increased scrutiny.
The city's budget office revealed at an investigative hearing Tuesday that it has spent $10.4 million over the past three years — an average of about $3.5 million annually — defending the Baltimore Police Department against lawsuits.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called for the hearing over what she called an "especially troubling" trend of the Police Department paying out millions over brutality claims while other parts of the budget, such as recreation centers, suffer cuts.
"Not only do they siphon off scarce funds that could have been used to address other pressing problems in Baltimore, but each judgment also can represent an instance where citizens were avoidably harmed by the actions of officers whose job it is to protect them," Clarke stated in a resolution that called for the hearing.
Police officials testified Tuesday that they have instituted better training for officers, which has reduced brutality complaints, and City Solicitor George Nilson argued that sometimes the city needs to spend more on legal fees to ensure lower settlements or judgments. About 65 percent of the cases against police allege excessive force, officials said.
Nilson said his office has used an approach in some police settlement cases that's similar to a city tactic on lead paint lawsuits. In the lead paint cases — in which the city's Housing Authority has been found liable for lead poisoning of public housing tenants — the city has refused to pay the judgments, citing a lack of funds.
For instance, Nilson said that in 2006, a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury determined that Officer Bryan Kershaw must pay Albert Mosley $44 million because of a 2003 encounter inside a city jail cell that left Mosley a quadriplegic. Nilson said the city refused to pay the multimillion-dollar verdict in the case, and eventually the plaintiff's lawyers agreed to a $1 million payout.
Mosley's attorney, William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., who accepted the settlement in that case, criticized the city's handling of police brutality lawsuits. He also said the city should pay for insurance against the suits and better train officers.
"What gives them the right to harm people and not compensate them for that?" Murphy asked. "They gave him a pittance of what they jury thought he should get. They disrespect the jury system."
The city spent $3.5 million in the fiscal year through June on judgments against the Police Department, settlements with plaintiffs, fees for private attorneys hired by City Hall to defend the cases, and the in-house expenses of defending the suits, according to William Voorhees, the city's director of revenue and tax analysis, who spoke to the City Council subcommittee investigating the matter. That's up from $3.2 million in fiscal year 2009 and down from $3.7 million last fiscal year.
In that time, payments to outside counsel defending city officers from suits have increased. The city spent about $700,000 last budget cycle on private attorneys, an increase from the approximately $350,000 it spent on such costs in 2010 and the $485,000 it spent in 2009.
Nilson, hired by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon in 2007, said the city law office has been less willing in recent years to settle police misconduct cases. Dating to the 1990s, he said, the city had a "reputation of sort of letting the case drift toward a trial date and then suddenly everybody's scrambling within 30 days of trial to figure out if a settlement is a good idea and what the number should be."
He said his tougher approach has forced plaintiffs' lawyers to bring more credible cases and has raised the city's odds of winning. At the same time, he acknowledged that the strategy has financially benefited the city's outside contract lawyers: "You have to invest money to save money."
The civil suits against the department aren't the only police-related cases costing the city significant sums. The city has paid the firm Kramon & Graham more than $1 million to defend a lawsuit brought last year in federal court by the police and fire unions over major changes made to the retirement plan.
The unions claim that the changes violate their contracts. The revisions include a raise in the minimum retirement eligibility from 20 to 25 years of employment for employees who currently have worked fewer than 15 years. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has maintained that the overhaul is needed to sustain the system and would save an estimated $400 million over five years.
The unions have prevailed on certain pre-trial decisions, and the trial is scheduled for late January. Asked how much he thought the city would ultimately spend on the case, Nilson predicted that "the grand total would be under $2 million."
"These are very big cases with very big amounts of risk on both sides," he said.