The City of Baltimore’s judgement has come under question recently as it plans to pay high-powered law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP up to $2.2 million in preparation for an ongoing Justice Department review of the city’s police practices. This choice has drawn criticism, as Baltimore struggles with budget shortfalls and socioeconomic challenges.
After national outrage over the death of Freddie Gray last spring, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the city’s police department, whose practices have recently drawn the ire of the local community and the nation. In response, Baltimore’s government sought adequate legal counsel, as other cities have done in similar situations. Many members of the city’s government, such as City Solicitor George Nilson, and other commentators have argued that Wilmer Hale is best prepared to represent Baltimore.
Jamie Gorelick, an attorney with Wilmer Hale, told the Wall Street Journal they will be working with the Justice Department, not fighting it. “You wouldn’t hire us if you wanted us to be in fisticuffs” with the Justice Department, she said. “There’s no question if you do this right, the city will come out ahead both in terms of the safety and security and liberty of its citizens, and just pure dollars.”
But the decision to hire outside legal services is facing backlash from City Council members and the community, especially as the price tag is expected to reach $2.2 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. Baltimore City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young expressed his concern about the costs associated with Wilmer Hale, saying that he believed the money could be better spent on programs directly benefiting the Baltimore community. Young also argued that paralegals could perform much of the legal paperwork for a fraction of the cost, potentially saving the city thousands of dollars.
A number of other cities facing similar legal battles, such as Los Angeles, Miami, and Seattle, have effectively used in-house lawyers to handle their respective cases. On the other hand, cities that have resorted to seeking outside legal counsel have faced significant criticism and consequences. The city of Ferguson, Missouri, for example, hired expensive outside firms to handle its legal troubles, costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ferguson is now struggling to pay the bills for legal help that will arguably do little to help its distressed residents or initiate meaningful reform.
In a city where 24 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, $2.2 million is no small amount of money. $2.2 million could go a long way towards building playgrounds, recreation centers, infrastructure, and schools. But instead of investing in programs that could help alleviate tensions between the police department and the community it serves, Baltimore has been forced to pay several million dollars in settlements involving police brutality lawsuits over the past five years. According to the Baltimore Sun, the city has been budgeting more and more money each year to cover litigation issues, while funding for schools and community services is drying up. For example, the school district recently laid off almost 200 employees in the face of a projected budget deficit of $100 million.
Bryan Dewan is an intern at ThinkProgress.
This article has been updated to clarify in what capacity Wilmer Hale has been retained by the city and to add a quote from a Wilmer Hale attorney.