City withholds part of settlement in police brutality lawsuit

(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
October 10, 2014|Mark Puente | The Baltimore Sun

It wasn't long after Ashley Overbey won approval for a $63,000 settlement from Baltimore's government that anonymous critics began their assault against her on the Internet. Commenting on news accounts of the settlement — which ended her lawsuit alleging police brutality — they accused the 27-year-old of initiating her arrest to get a big payout.

She responded, defending herself and recounting details of the incident — a move that led the city to withhold $31,500 from Overbey's payout this week.

City lawyers said Friday they were simply holding Overbey to terms of the settlement, which prohibits injured residents from making any public statement — or talking to the news media — about events that sparked their lawsuits. People who agree to those terms acknowledge that they could forfeit some of the payout.

But Overbey and her lawyer say city officials are being unfair.

Online comments "were so judgmental from such a small article." Overbey said Friday evening. "I was upset. I didn't consider it the media. No one identified themselves as a reporter. It was a blog site."

Overbey's attorney, Simone Mollock, added, "The comments were painful for her to read. She was defending herself online."

Such settlement terms drew criticism in a recent Baltimore Sun series about lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. Some officials said the terms have helped keep the scope of the problem from becoming widely known. The series also noted that when settlements are placed on the agenda at public meetings involving the mayor and other top officials, cases are described using excerpts from police reports, with allegations of brutality routinely omitted.

The Sun's investigation, published after city officials approved Overbey's settlement, found that residents have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests. The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits since 2011, and nearly all of the people involved in incidents leading to those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges. Some officers were involved in multiple lawsuits.

Overbey's lawsuit accused three officers of beating her after she reported a burglary in her home in April 2012.

According to documents presented Sept. 10 to the Board of Estimates by City Solicitor George Nilson, Overbey "became hostile" and got into a "verbal confrontation" with Officer Fred Hannah. He accused her of pushing him and attempted to arrest her.

Overbey alleged that Hannah pulled her hair and began hitting her, the documents state. When additional police officers arrived, Overbey and Hannah were struggling in the hallway. A second officer began struggling with Overbey, while a third shocked her with a Taser, the city said.

Overbey was charged with five counts of assault and resisting arrest, but city prosecutors dropped those charges.

When the board approved the settlement, Nilson said of the altercation: "Folks got emotional. There was lots of noise and lots of resistance. One citizen had to be Tased in order to calm down. We decided it made sense to settle the matter rather than throw it up in the air for a jury. We make these judgments all the time."

The memo did not mention other accusations in Overbey's lawsuit. She accused Hannah of barging into her apartment without announcing himself. When she questioned him, he "became overly aggressive, rude and disrespectful" to Overbey and her mother, Jenean Kelly.

Hannah then grabbed Overbey's "hair, twisted her arm behind her back, forced her into the hallway, began striking her about her face and body," the lawsuit states. Officer Martin Richardson then arrived and threw her to the ground before "violently and maliciously striking" Overbey. He pinned her under a stairwell and continued to punch her, the lawsuit says.

Moments later, Hannah started yelling at Kelly and eventually arrested her. He later pulled her by "the hair and banged her head, face and body into a transport van," the lawsuit says. Officer Grant Galing arrived and fired his Taser twice at Overbey.

Police have not allowed officers named in lawsuits to comment on the allegations.

When The Sun reported on Overbey's settlement, some online commenters harshly criticized her.

"I'm sorry for your experience, but pushing a Police Officer does not work," a commenter called Co.Owner wrote about Overbey. "No matter what your race is, you never touch a police officer; you do answer all questions; and assist when possible. I would rather be shot by a Taser, then a bullet. I can't wait until you need their help in the future. Enjoy the money!!"

MissDaisy wrote: "So, OK, I can call the cops, assault one of them, get tased and get paid! Sounds like a plan!"

Overbey, who doesn't have a criminal record, replied online that people should learn the facts before commenting. She described the incident, mirroring statements in her lawsuit.

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