Since January, Baltimore has paid out $8.3 million in settlements for victims of police misaction, which range from cases of excessive force to being struck by police vehicles who were responding to emergency calls.
This year, 10 lawsuits have been settled at a median amount of $280,000, according to data from the Board of Estimates settlement tracker. At this time last year, only eight settlements involved police misaction, with a median settlement amount of $109,500.
Those settlements include $6 million for Shirley Johnson, whose father died in a vehicle collision caused by former Gun Trace Task Force members, $400,000 for a man who was riding his moped when he was struck and killed by police, and $250,000 to Aaron Winston, whose arm was broken after he was pinned to the ground by an officer at a bar.
It also includes Sean Lewis Jr., a 15-year-old who was shot with a stun gun in the groin four times by Christopher Florio, a now-retired Baltimore police officer, while Lewis was trying to pick up his younger brother from school in 2015. The $500,000 the city’s Board of Estimates approved in June is one of the largest settlements this year for a lawsuit involving police misaction that did not involve a death or wrongful incarceration.
Terry Harrell, the moped rider who was struck and killed, is one of five settlements this year in incidents where police vehicles struck people.
Baltimore has a long history of paying a price for bad behavior by police. According to the city’s Gun Trace Task Force settlement tracker, the city has so far paid out $22.9 million to victims of 41 cases of police misaction by the since-disbanded force, where members were convicted of planting evidence at the scene of crimes, robbery, extortion and overtime fraud. The city recouped no money from the officers involved.
Settlements this year are both more frequent and more expensive, pointing to a trend of rising payouts to victims who are coping with the aftermath of police misaction.
The city’s law department, which negotiates settlements, did not respond to interview requests.
James Peters, the attorney who represented Lewis, said that the settlement amount was so high because of the nature of the boy’s injuries, and because he was arrested illegally.
“He wasn’t just tasered — he was tasered in a very obviously painful area. He was 15 and picking up his special-needs brother from school,” Peters said.
Attorneys like Peters, who step in to defend the victims of police misaction, are getting better at handling cases. Peters said he managed Lewis’ case strategically and sued for the illegal arrest rather than excessive force. The former is a violation of constitutional rights and makes it harder for an officer to claim qualified immunity.
“It’s kind of a different legal theory,” Peters said. “I’ve only had one other case that was like that, and they both settled for about the same amount. The other guy did spend some time in jail, about five months.”
Another reason for the high settlement, Peters said, was to avoid a jury trial, where outcomes are more unpredictable and the city could potentially have to pay out more at a jury’s decision.
According to court documents, Sean Lewis Jr. was 15 when he arrived at Lockerman Bundy Elementary School, which has since closed, to pick up his younger brother. School administrators refused to release his brother to him, even after Lewis explained that their mother had sent him, and asked him to leave the school.
Lewis retreated to a sidewalk that was not on school property, according to court documents, and that’s when school officials called the police. Florio, the only responder, drew his Taser immediately and engaged with Lewis for at least 15 minutes, according to the documents. During that encounter, he fired the Taser at Lewis, who afterward needed surgery to remove the prongs from his genitals.
Lewis was never charged with a crime and was released to his home after surgery, according to court documents.
In 2021, the board of estimates approved a settlement of $45,000 for another lawsuit Florio was involved in, in which he was accused of using excessive force and false arrest.
Stuart Goldberg, one of the attorneys who represented the officer, declined to comment.
Michael Pinard, the co-director of the clinical law program at the University of Maryland, also believes compensation through a settlement is a way to deliver a concrete sum to a victim, without the uncertainties of a trial.
“Settling relieves the victim of the burden to share their trauma and their pain in that public way,” Pinard said. “It also brings to the victim, as well as to the city, terms of what they negotiate as fairness.”
The moral responsibility to compensate a victim of police brutality is clear, but Pinard said what’s not clear is where the money should come from and how to hold the right people accountable.
Last year, House Bill 463 was introduced to establish civil liability for police officers who are charged with violating civil rights. It would have required the officers or their employers to pay out settlements that result from their actions. The bill died in a hearing less than a month later.
“There’s a need to pay for the harm that bad or negligent cops have caused,” Pinard said. “We always have to think about how an individual officer’s conduct could change if that officer doesn’t have to pay — that’s something we need to talk about more.
“The more bad policing we have, the more we pay for the consequences of bad policing. This money could be spent on any number of services and supports that help uplift communities and change lives.”