A battle is brewing in the City of Baltimore between city officials and BPD’s Fraternal Order of Police union.
Up to nine Baltimore police officers are tens of thousands of dollars in debt to plaintiffs after being found to have exhibited “actual malice” during arrests by civil court juries. The city attorney wants members of the Baltimore Police Department to know that they’ll be personally on the hook for restitution should they be sued and lose, while the FOP contends that threatening to garnish officers’ pay is the wrong message to send to those tasked with fighting crime.
The departmental morale and legal issues presented here are stunning.
In a memo drafted to his members on Tuesday, FOP President Lt. Gene Ryan pointed out everything wrong with this picture. According to Ryan, officers successfully defend these types of “malice” suits in civil court most of the time, but he mentions there have been many cases where officers have been on the losing end of jury judgments despite a lack of evidence for malicious intent in the past.
In a civil trial, the accused party only needs to be found 51 percent in the wrong based on a “preponderance of the evidence,” as opposed to the “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” standard set for a criminal trial. It’s safe to say that 51 percent can be a low bar to meet if the jury has any anti-police bias whatsoever. Think about this: An officer can be determined to have acted within the rules and regulations of the police department, cleared of all wrongdoing by the State’s Attorney, and absent of any criminal charges – yet still lose a civil trial.
Ryan’s memo asserts the city has maintained a good track record of picking up the tab in such cases but states that things recently changed with City Solicitor Andre Davis’ appointment last year. While Davis insists that he is merely being transparent about law enforcement policies, Ryan’s ultimate message to members of his union is this: “…the successful citizen can file an attachment against your wages taking 25 percent of your bi-weekly paycheck until the amount of the punitive judgment is satisfied. Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties.”
The departmental morale and legal issues presented here are stunning. Despite these developments being bad for morale, Ryan is absolutely right to warn officers of the financial risks they are taking by simply wearing a badge in the City of Baltimore. How can the city expect officers to throw themselves into tough situations when they’re gambling on the outcome with their own money? This policy places BPD officers in a vulnerable financial position each and every time they suit up for work. There’s nothing for them to gain by aggressively fighting crime — but there’s much to lose. So why do it?
“Please keep this in mind as you go about performing your duties,” says so much more than the words written. It says, “Don’t stick your neck out, the city won’t back you.” It says, “That dope boy on the corner you arrest could end up taking food off your kids’ plates.” It promotes a policing ethos to mind your own business and turn the other cheek — the trouble simply is’t worth it. When the city you work for puts you in that kind of position, I can’t say I don’t empathize. Good luck with recruiting and retaining your force, Baltimore.
It’s been established that Baltimore is killing its police department’s morale in this situation, but it’s not making sense to me from a legal standpoint either. Police officers and other government officials were afforded qualified immunity in the 1983 Supreme Court case Harlow v. Fitzgerald. QI shields officers from being personally liable in civil suits so long as “…their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Working without QI is like swinging the trapeze without a safety net when you consider the realities of a job that routinely places officers in chaotic situations. Peaceful outcomes aren’t always possible.
I’m sensing a legal gray area and it makes me question how a police officer can be deprived of qualified immunity after they have already been determined to be within policy at the departmental level and cleared of wrongdoing at the state level. At that point, the city and the state should be the target of a civil suit, not the officer himself, based on what these entities trained the officer to do.
I’d be a sucker for any politician advocating for the kind of tort reform that would force these parasites to get second jobs, but in unfortunate cities like Baltimore, they are the politicians – and sitting on the city council is the second job.
There was a time when a cop’s arch nemesis was the criminal, but more and more cops are either doing the bare minimum or deciding to stay away from the profession altogether. It’s not just a by-product of the anti-police mood that has swept significant portions of the country, but also the result of litigation overload.
During my daily commute, I pass three billboards plastered with the faces of bottom-feeding personal injury attorneys who would sue their own mothers. As I enter my jurisdiction, the first landmark I see is a massive new office building for a personal injury attorney where an old Knights of Columbus used to stand. It’s also visible from the precinct, along with the firm’s obnoxious billboard a quarter mile down the road. Then there’s the MARTA bus tattooed with a particularly objectionable PI attorney’s advertisement that I can’t seem to escape as I patrol the city.
It doesn’t end there. Turn on daytime network television and you’ll notice pretty quickly that every other commercial flashes a personal injury attorney hustling for clients. In my opinion, PI attorneys are just as responsible for a perceived decline in American society as anyone. I’d be a sucker for any politician advocating for the kind of tort reform that would force these parasites to get second jobs, but in unfortunate cities like Baltimore, they are the politicians – and sitting on the city council is the second job.
Baltimore has elected to send a signal that they will not go to bat for police officers in these situations. It’s going to hurt them in the long run.
To be clear, I understand the need for these attorneys to exist. We’re not all legal experts and I have no problem with legitimate lawsuits. My bone to pick lies with the aggressive way in which the industry is advertised, promoted, and normalized in everyday life. Possessing the zeal to take even the most frivolous case will get a PI attorney paid, even when the case is thrown out or settled. It has turned our society into an overly litigious minefield, where the next lawsuit could be right around the corner for anyone — cops are more exposed than most.
Knowing full-well that people will sue for just about anything these days, Baltimore has elected to send a signal that they will not go to bat for police officers in these situations. It’s going to hurt them in the long run.