Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office announced Tuesday that the city of Baltimore has reached a $6.4 million settlement with Freddie Gray’s family following his death in police custody on April 12. $2.8 million will be paid this year, and the remaining $3.6 million would be paid the following year.
Gray, 25, was arrested and ultimately suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in the back of a police van. Six officers involved in Gray’s arrest have since been charged with crimes relating to his death, and the settlement comes about a week after Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams ruled that the six officers will be tried separately, with charges ranging from assault to murder.
The $6.2 million nearly matches the total amount the city has spent in police misconduct settlements since 2011 — the total is an estimated $6.3 million, according to a Baltimore Sun investigation conducted last year.
While such high settlements aren’t unheard of (in July, the family of Eric Garner reached a $5.9 million settlement with New York in 43-year-old Garner’s death in police custody), the decision was reached quickly when compared to other similar cases. In February of 1999, unarmed 22-year-old Amadou Diallo was fatally shot in the Bronx by police officers. Diallo’s family received a $3 million settlement in 2004. Sean Bell, 23, was shot and killed by the NYPD in 2006, and a settlement — which totaled at least $7 million — was not reached until 2010.
However, a senior diversity leader spoke with DiversityInc and gave her thoughts on the settlement. She said that the news actually did not surprise her because the settlement prevents the case from lingering in the public eye.
“When the defendants move to a quick settlement,” she explained, “they know they don’t want this case in the media.”
An experienced civil trial lawyer also had a discussion with DiversityInc and said the quick decision did not come as a shock to him either. He explained that the city of Baltimore is “trying to resolve a messy situation quickly” and also cited the high-profile nature of the case as part of why the city would want to settle so quickly.
“If the possibility of liability is very serious and a case is on the front burner,” he said, “they will push for an early settlement.”
In fact, he said it is not uncommon for cases to be settled prior to a complaint even being filed — if the evidence is there. In Freddie Gray’s case, the evidence shows that he was healthy prior to his arrest, and this changed during his ride in the police van. Based on this chain of events, his fatal injury would have been sustained, logically, while he was in police custody. He described this seemingly unusual process as “complicated but understandable.”
Freddie Gray’s family was likely advised to settle as well, the lawyer explained. By going through a trial, the family not only risks losing the settlement entirely but also must be forced to relive the tragedy over and over throughout the course of the trial.
During the conversation, he also pointed out that, by settling outside of court, the city avoids not only leaving the verdict up to an unpredictable jury but also eliminates the possibility of confidential information that the city would rather keep quiet being obtained by the press, who would inevitably be following the case very closely. But this also does a disservice to the public, he noted.
“We’re going to be deprived of the discovery that would’ve been made by that trial,” he said. “We’re going to lose the impact of [that verdict.]”
Rawlings-Blake emphasized that the civil suit gives no indication of the guilt or innocence of the six officers awaiting trials for their involvement in Gray’s death — which are completely separate from the civil suit.
“The proposed settlement agreement going before the Board of Estimates should not be interpreted as a judgment on the guilt or innocence of the officers facing trial,” she said. “This settlement is being proposed solely because it is in the best interest of the city, and avoids costly and protracted litigation that would only make it more difficult for our city to heal and potentially cost taxpayers many millions more in damages.”
A judge will determine Thursday whether or not the criminal trials will take place in Baltimore.