Some Baltimore police officers face repeated misconduct lawsuits

City has paid more than $600,000 in lawsuits for one officer

  • John Bonkowski recently settled a lawsuit for $75,000 with the city after being beaten by police officer.
John Bonkowski recently settled a lawsuit for $75,000 with… (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun )
October 04, 2014|Mark Puente | The Baltimore Sun

While hospitalized with a fractured ankle and broken jaw, John Bonkowski reached for his smartphone to find details about the man who beat him outside a parking garage near the Inner Harbor.

He typed "Officer Michael McSpadden" into Google.

The results stunned Bonkowski. He found references showing that the longtime Baltimore officer had been accused in three separate civil lawsuits: of kicking and stomping a woman, of breaking a man's wrist and of beating a man unconscious with a police baton. Settlements in those lawsuits had cost city taxpayers more than $485,000.

"It's really sickening to me," Bonkowski recalled recently, adding that he couldn't believe McSpadden was able to stay on the police force for so long.

After enduring two surgeries, Bonkowski also sued McSpadden. In a settlement, the city agreed in April to pay Bonkowski $75,000.

McSpadden is not the only Baltimore officer who has faced multiple lawsuits, forcing the city to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on court judgments and settlements, a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation has found.

The investigation — which has led to an inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice— revealed that police leaders, city attorneys and other top officials were not keeping track of officers who repeatedly faced lawsuits with allegations of brutality.

City lawyers did not understand the full extent of McSpadden's string of lawsuits until this July — after The Sun started asking questions about the officer. The Law Department was unaware that McSpadden was battling more than one lawsuit arising from incidents in 2012. And City Hall leaders learned about McSpadden's history just two days before the Board of Estimates agreed to settle another excessive-force lawsuit involving him. The total cost to taxpayers for the five lawsuits: more than $624,000.

The investigation, which focused on settlements and court judgments made since 2011, also found that multiple cases related to allegations of assault, false arrest and false imprisonment have not hindered some officers from becoming supervisors. In one case, for example, two officers were sued by a Baltimore man who won $175,000 in a jury trial, but they now have a higher rank — a problem that police blame in part on civil service rules.

The Baltimore Police Department, like others around the nation, has a policy designed to protect people under arrest. Part of its general orders state that officers are to "ensure the safety of the arrestee" when taking people into custody. But The Sun's investigation found that officers do not always follow policy in reporting the use of force, making it harder for agency leaders to detect problems.

On Friday, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the Department of Justice would conduct a civil rights investigation into the allegations of brutality and misconduct. He and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said they requested the probe after the issue was highlighted in The Sun, but added that the problems arose before they took charge.

City officials, who say some lawsuits against police are frivolous, add that they are improving the systems that track problem officers — especially those who are repeatedly the subject of lawsuits. And police leaders pledge that officers who have recently sustained complaints of egregious behavior will be bypassed whenever possible for promotions.

Still, some city practices, including the sparse information provided to the public about proposed settlements, have limited the public's knowledge about police misconduct. In such settlement agreements, the city and its police officers do not acknowledge any wrongdoing, and the residents who sued are prohibited from talking in public or to the news media about the allegations.

Officials such as Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt have called for changes that would increase transparency and provide more information about misconduct to the public.

David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh Law School professor who is an expert on police misconduct, questions the leadership of the agency. He said he was surprised that Baltimore did not already have a comprehensive tracking system like those in departments in other major cities.

"There is no excuse for that in the modern world," Harris said. "That speaks to the level of supervision there."

One officer, many lawsuits

McSpadden joined the force in 1993. Within a couple of years, allegations of brutality arose.

In 1995, the young patrolman was accused of dragging, stomping and kicking a handcuffed woman on Rayleigh Avenue near Mount Carmel Cemetery. The court file in the state archives in Annapolis shows that the woman's lawsuit was settled but doesn't list a dollar amount. The city could not find financial records about the settlement.

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