BALTIMORE (AP) — The parents of Freddie Gray reached a tentative $6.4 million settlement with the city of Baltimore, nearly five months after their 25-year-old son was critically injured in police custody, sparking days of protests and rioting.
The deal announced Tuesday appeared to be among the largest settlements in police death cases in recent years and happened just two days before a judge is set to hear arguments on whether to move the trials for six officers charged in Gray's death from Baltimore.
Gray's spine was injured April 12 in the back of a transport van after he was arrested. Gray, who was black, died at the hospital a week later. In the aftermath, Gray became a symbol of the contentious relationship between the police and the public in Baltimore, as well as the treatment of black men by police in America.
The city's Board of Estimates is expected to approve the settlement Wednesday.
"The proposed settlement agreement going before the Board of Estimates should not be interpreted as a judgment on the guilt or innocence of the officers facing trial," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a news release. "This settlement is being proposed solely because it is in the best interest of the city, and avoids costly and protracted litigation that would only make it more difficult for our city to heal and potentially cost taxpayers many millions more in damages."
The settlement does not resolve any factual disputes, and expressly does not constitute an admission of liability on the part of the city, its police department or any of the officers. The settlement has nothing whatsoever to do with the criminal proceedings, the news release said.
An attorney for Gray's family declined to comment.
The proposed payment in the Gray case is more than the $5.7 million the city of Baltimore paid in total for 102 court judgments and settlements for alleged police misconduct between 2011 and last fall, according to an investigation by The Baltimore Sun. The city paid another $5.8 million for legal fees to outside lawyers who represented officers, the newspaper reported.
The amount of the settlement exceeds what the family could have won in state court; Maryland has a $400,000 cap on damages for those who win judgments over police misconduct. However, cases that involve grave injury or death — and the possibility of civil rights violations — frequently wind up in federal court, where the cap does not apply.
Even more unusual than the monetary amount, experts say, is the timeline: the city agreed to a settlement before the family filed a lawsuit.
Experts say the city's willingness to pre-empt a lawsuit could have an impact on the officers' ability to receive a fair trial in Baltimore.
"Damages would have been paid if the city went to trial and they're willing to settle it. But they tell us it's by no way an admission of fault by the police officers," said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "There's no doubt that this will figure in to the hearing for change of venue. If I was an attorney for a defendant I'd be revising my motion right now to say the settlement was made to persuade the jury pool that the officers did something wrong."
Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey Law School, said the settlement is a step in restoring the public's faith in local government and mending the relationship between the citizens of Baltimore and elected officials.
"It's a big step toward a different type of policing," Colbert said, "and a relationship with the community that deters misconduct."
In July, New York City settled for $5.9 million with the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being put in a white police officer's chokehold. The city of Chicago settled in 2001 a wrongful death lawsuit by the family of LaTanya Haggerty, a black woman who was shot to death by a black officer who mistook her cellphone for a weapon, for $18 million.
But Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said such settlements are damaging for communities and self-serving for governments. By paying off family members, O'Donnell said, cities can prevent real scrutiny of political and social ills that allowed misconduct to occur.
"It's all too easy to take public money and hand it over to people and say, 'Well, this is a big aberrational mistake and we're going to make it good,' and it generally absolves the policymakers and the people in power of responsibility, when in fact the mistakes are systemic and reflective of a lack of leadership," he said.
The head of Baltimore's police union condemned the agreement.
"To suggest that there is any reason to settle prior to the adjudication of the pending criminal cases is obscene and without regard to the fiduciary responsibility owed to the taxpaying citizens of the city," Lt. Gene Ryan said in a statement.
All six officers, including Edward Nero and Garrett Miller, are charged with second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer William Porter also face a manslaughter charge, while Officer Caesar Goodson faces the most serious charge of all: second-degree "depraved-heart" murder.
Associated Press writer David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Maryland, contributed to this report.