Tracking repeat offenders
Bernard C. Young
Young and Pratt need to start asking more questions about police misconduct settlements.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration is right about this much: The fact that a police officer had been the defendant in a previous misconduct case for which the city paid a $100,000 settlement should not have influenced the Board of Estimates decision to approve a $150,000 settlement in a new case this week. The plaintiff is either deserving of the settlement or not. The fact that Detective Calvin Moss was accused of wrongfully arresting a woman who was delivering church raffle tickets in 2007 — and for that matter, the fact that Mr. Moss was cleared by juries in two other cases — has nothing to do with the question of whether the city should compensate Marque Marshall, a Baltimore man who had two fingers shot off by the officer in 2013.
But it is, nonetheless, extremely important information for the public to know. Although the city scrupulously insists that settlements do not indicate an admission of wrongdoing, multiple settlements involving individual officers should be a red flag, and they should prompt questions about whether the police department is adequately investigating such cases and meting out discipline where appropriate. While it's possible that certain officers are just unlucky enough to be the subject of repeated frivolous lawsuits that the city's law department determines are easier and cheaper to settle than to fight in court, somebody outside of the administration ought to be asking questions about it.
Until The Sun's Mark Puente reported on the nearly $6 million in settlements the city has paid in police misconduct cases since 2011, it's pretty clear that nobody was. The administration was not keeping track of whether officers had multiple claims against them, and evidently City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt weren't either. Both complained this week about the mayor's failure to mention the previous settlement involving Mr. Moss, but if they had been paying close attention to the matter, they wouldn't have needed a heads-up. Mr. Young and Ms. Pratt both attended the 2012 Board of Estimates meeting at which the first Moss settlement was approved, and both voted for it.
Given the volume of police misconduct settlements and judgments that go through the Board of Estimates — more than 100 since 2011 — it is perhaps unrealistic to expect either of them to remember a particular officer's name off the top of their heads. (Although one would think they might have in this case; Mr. Moss was prominently featured in one of Mr. Puente's articles as the defendant in four lawsuits in 10 years.) But it's also evident that the frequency of such settlements and the millions in taxpayer dollars spent to pay them and associated legal fees did not prompt them to keep close track of the cases or the officers involved, or to ask many questions about them.
As Mayor Rawlings-Blake promised, the city's law department is now posting some information about police misconduct cases on its website. The database contains all court dispositions and settlements since Nov. 12, so it will be relatively easy for Mr. Young, Ms. Pratt or any member of the public to determine whether an officer is involved in multiple settlements after that point. But as yet, the database doesn't contain much information about each case beyond the settlement amount, and it doesn't help anyone to determine whether an officer was accused of misconduct before late 2014.
One would hope that the mayor, as the person in charge of safeguarding the city's finances, not to mention the relationship between the police and the community, would raise a stink when the same officers are doing repeated damage on both those fronts. But in various forums Wednesday, Ms. Rawlings-Blake was repeatedly dismissive of the idea that her administration should have disclosed the previous settlement involving Mr. Moss, and her spokesman said the law department believes releasing such information before a Board of Estimates vote is bad practice. It's quite clear that unless Mr. Young or Ms. Pratt requests such information, the administration won't provide it. "I can't tell them what questions to ask," the mayor said on WYPR-FM.
Well, we can. Mr. Young and Ms. Pratt: When considering such settlements in the future, please ask whether the officers have been involved in previous misconduct cases. Ask what the dispositions of those cases were. Ask for the details of what happened. Ask what disciplinary action, if any, was taken. Put pressure on the law department to drop the clause in its settlement agreements forbidding plaintiffs from talking about their cases, and then call them before the board to tell their side of the story. This is the public's money and the public's trust we're dealing with here, and it can't be given too much attention. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has taken some steps to increase transparency and accountability when it comes to police misconduct allegations, and we appreciate that. But the only way we'll get real and lasting change is if officials like Mr. Young and Ms. Pratt consistently hold the administration's feet to the fire.