New policy change in Baltimore could make police officers financially responsible for lawsuits

Baltimore’s police union is warning that a new change in policy from the city solicitor’s office may make officers responsible for payouts from lawsuits, which will likely have a chilling effect on the department as a whole.

In an email message to members, police union president Gene Ryan said that the city has “generally supported” officers in the past by paying out punitive damages as well as compensatory damages that were awarded litigants in civil jury trials.

But new city solicitor Andre Davis, a former federal judge who was hired by the city last year, has altered the policy.

Here is the email sent to police union members:

Many of our officers are sued for monetary damages by individuals they have arrested or have come in contact with.  These lawsuits allege wrongdoing on the part of the officer and oftentimes allege that the officer acted with malice.  Malice means that the officer’s alleged actions were motivated by a personal hatred towards the individual suing him or her.  If the person suing the officer wins on the question of whether the officer committed a wrong, the Plaintiff can recover monetary damages to compensate him or her for any injury and/or expenses incurred resulting from the officer’s actions.  If a jury finds that the officer acted with malice, the jury has the option to award punitive damages which are designed to punish the officer and to serve as a deterrent to the officer not to repeat the alleged wrongful conduct found to have occurred by the jury.

Most times, the officer who is being sued will dispute the allegations made by a Plaintiff and successfully defend a claim for punitive damages. However, many juries award punitive damages despite the lack of evidence of malice even in cases where the police officer has not been charged criminally and been found to have acted within the scope of his/her duties consistent with the rules and regulations of the Baltimore Police Department. In the past, the City of Baltimore has generally supported the officers by paying punitive damages as well as the compensatory damages awarded for the actual injury.  Since Andre Davis has been named as our new City Solicitor, he has adopted a policy of not paying any punitive damages despite the fact that the Police Officer has been found to have acted appropriately by the office of the State’s Attorney as well as the Baltimore Police Department.

What this means is that police officers are now required to pay these punitive damage awards, which can amount to thousands of dollars, out of their own pockets.  Since punitive damages cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, the successful citizen can file an attachment against your wages taking 25% of your net bi-weekly pay check [sic] until the amount of the punitive judgement [sic] is satisfied.

Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties.

Justin Fenton, a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, tweeted that this policy change is an “earthquake” that is blasting through the department. [source]

Why It Matters: This policy has real-world implications for public safety in Baltimore. Consider: “In one recent lawsuit against police, a jury returned a verdict for $147,100 in economic and non-economic damages, as well as $40,000 in punitive damages, with the jury finding that officers acted with ‘actual malice.'” How many Baltimore Police officers are going to remain on the job if there is any chance whatsoever that they’ll be held financially liable for punitive damages, no matter what the circumstances? Keep in mind as well that there has been much racial and political discourse in recent years in Baltimore as well, and this policy is only likely to inflame both. 

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.