The family of slain teenager Freddie Gray have agreed to a $6.4 million wrongful death settlement with the City of Baltimore nearly five months after Gray died of severe spinal injuries he sustained while riding in the back of a police vehicle.
The payment, if approved by city spending officials as expected, will be larger than the combined settlement payouts the city made in over 100 separate police misconduct cases from 2011 to 2014. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) emphasized that the decision to settle the Gray family’s suit is not “a judgment on the guilt or innocence of the officers facing trial” for charges that they killed Gray by giving him an intentionally violent “rough ride” back to a police station.
In addition to the $5.7 million that Baltimore paid to victims in alleged police misconduct cases of various kinds from 2011 to 2014, the city spent $5.8 million on related litigation. Settling with the Grays instead of fighting their claims in court will likely save the city money despite the size of the settlement figure.
Gray’s death sparked widespread unrest in Charm City, with multiple days of confrontations between police and protesters. There were violent clashes and fires, and there were peaceful rallies attended by both civilians and rival gang members who had made common cause. The incendiary reaction to yet another black man’s suspicious, violent death at the hands of city servants came in the context of a city where poverty is stark and endemic.
The long-simmering neglect that made Baltimore a powderkeg is ongoing, intensifying, and hard to reverse. Rawlings-Blake is in the early stages of a multi-year austerity program designed to repair the city’s fiscal outlook, and is still under political pressure from the state government to cut even deeper.
The big-ticket items in the mayor’s budget rescue plan have mostly involved retirement systems and payroll policies for public workers, but some of the city’s cuts are more directly antagonistic to the quality of life in Baltimore’s poorest pockets. She has already approved cuts to a wide variety of community services including prisoner re-entry programs, public libraries, and rec centers, and reductions to more cosmetic functions like trash pickups, street light maintenance, and upkeep of public buildings.
The $6.4 million Baltimore will pay Freddie Gray’s family is a small amount relative to the city’s needs. But taxpayers can expect to cover every penny of it. Only a handful of individual police officers have had to pay into settlements tied to their alleged misconduct, according to research by UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz. Schwartz found that taxpayers covered the payments even in cases where individual cops were ordered to pay punitive damages out of their own pocket, with such punitive costs totaling $3.9 million nationwide from 2006 to 2011.
Out of a total of $730 million in police misconduct settlement payments nationwide during Schwartz’s study period, 0.02 percent was paid by actual law enforcement officers. She concluded that law enforcement officers are almost entirely indemnified from the financial fallout of misconduct, a reality that potentially degrades police’s incentives to conduct their work with integrity.