Baltimore Police Union Balks at Policy Requiring Officers to Pay Some Legal Damages Themselves

As many as nine Baltimore police officers could have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in damages after juries found they acted with “actual malice” in the course of making arrests — a development that prompted a warning from the police union and, in turn, a fiery response from the city’s top lawyer.

The union asserted in a memo Tuesday that forcing officers to pay such damages themselves was a change in the city’s policy. But both City Solicitor Andre Davis and his predecessor said Wednesday the policy has not changed and officers have potentially been on the hook for decades in such cases.

Davis said what has changed is that he has been more transparent about the policy, noting it in materials submitted to the city’s spending board in December. Davis called the memo by a local Fraternal Order of Police leader an attempt to “stir something up.”

“Unfortunately, as I’m sure you know, right now the city and the police department have an adversarial relationship with the FOP,” Davis said. The city is involved in litigation with the union over pensions and overtime and is in the midst of contentious contract negotiations.

The Baltimore police union said that forcing officers to pay up personally was a change in policy by the city. But City Solicitor Andre Davis said Wednesday the policy has not changed and officers have potentially been on the hook for decades in such cases.

The dispute highlights differing views of whether civil lawsuits should be used to hold individual police officers accountable. Davis said officers need to know that the city will not always back them when they’re found to have acted badly. But police union officials questioned whether juries can reach the right verdict in every case and said the financial risk the policy creates could deter people from joining the department.

Lt. Gene Ryan, the police union’s president, told his members Tuesday that the city had “generally supported” officers in the past by paying punitive damages as well as compensatory damages awarded in civil jury trials. Ryan told his members that Davis, a former federal judge who joined the city last year, has changed that policy.

“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,” Ryan wrote. “Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties.”

But former City Solicitor George Nilson, whom Davis replaced, confirmed that this has long been the city’s policy. He said the Baltimore law department has held for years that taxpayers are not responsible for paying punitive damages when a jury finds the officers acted with malice. He said such cases arise rarely because the city often settles cases before trial.

“In the past, the city law department has appropriately refused to pay malice judgments,” Nilson said.

The Police Department declined to comment on the issue.

Michael Davey, a lawyer at the firm that represents the police union, told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that as many as nine officers currently face such judgments. He declined to identify them, but some of the cases are publicly known.

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