BALTIMORE (KRON/AP) — Baltimore city officials on Wednesday approved a $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died a week after he was critically injured while in police custody.
The settlement, initially announced Tuesday, appears to be among the largest such payments in police death cases in recent years. The agreement settles all civil claims tied to the death of Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury while he was being transported in a Baltimore police van in April.
The agreement could play a critical role in whether a judge decides to move the trials for the six officers charged in Gray’s death out of the city.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other members of the Board of Estimates unanimously approved the settlement the day before Judge Barry Williams will hear arguments on whether the trials should be moved. Defense attorneys have asked for a change of venue, citing pre-trial publicity and concern that the officers will not receive fair trials in Baltimore.
The settlement reached before Gray’s parents and his estate filed a lawsuit, although they had already filed claims with the city and its police department.
Deputy City Solicitor David Ralph said the settlement payout will have no impact on city operations or budgeted programs.
City Solicitor George Nilson said the settlement “spares us from having the scab of April of this year being picked over and over and over for five or six years to come. That would not be good for the city,” he said.
At a news conference, the mayor acknowledged that a settlement before criminal proceedings were resolved was unusual but said it was in the best interest of protecting taxpayers. She said negotiations lasted for months.
“I again want to extend my most sincere condolences to the family of Mr. Freddie Gray,” Mayor Rawlings-Blake said. “I hope that this settlement will bring some measure of closure to his family and to his friends.”
Although the city said in a statement that the settlement does not resolve any factual disputes, and expressly does not constitute an admission of liability on the part of the city, its police department or any of the officers, experts say the city’s willingness to pre-empt a lawsuit could have an effect on the officers’ ability to receive an impartial trial in Baltimore — an issue Williams will likely decide Thursday.
“If I was an attorney for a defendant I’d be revising my motion right now to say the settlement was made to persuade the jury pool that the officers did something wrong,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey Law School, said the settlement is a step in restoring the public’s faith in local government and mending the broken relationship between the citizens of Baltimore and elected officials.
“It’s a big step toward a different type of policing,” Colbert said.
The mayor said officers in the Western District neighborhood, where Gray was arrested, will be the first to start wearing body cameras as part of a pilot program. Billy Murphy, the attorney for the Gray family, applauded the move and said the settlement brought civil justice to the family.
“Lengthy litigation puts the grieving family through hell. It could have taken three years. No family wants that,” Murphy said.
Other settlements have varied widely. In July, New York City settled for $5.9 million with the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being put in a white police officer’s chokehold. The city of Chicago settled in 2001 a wrongful death lawsuit by the family of LaTanya Haggerty, a black woman who was shot to death by a police officer who thought her cellphone was a weapon, for $18 million.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said such settlements are damaging for communities and self-serving for governments. By paying off family members, O’Donnell said, cities can prevent real scrutiny of political and social ills that allowed misconduct to occur.