Baltimore to pay $6M in latest police misconduct settlement
BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore leaders agreed Wednesday to pay a $6 million settlement to the family of a driver who was killed during a 2010 police chase involving Gun Trace Task Force officers — the city’s latest payout resulting from flagrant misconduct by the rogue law enforcement unit.
Baltimore has now spent $22.2 million to settle nearly 40 cases involving the Gun Trace Task Force, officials said during a public meeting of the city’s spending board Wednesday morning. At least five other cases are pending in various stages of litigation.
The task force was created to get illegal guns off the streets, but instead members robbed drug dealers, planted narcotics and firearms on innocent people, and assaulted random civilians. More than a dozen officers have been convicted in the scandal since 2017. Hundreds of cases that hinged on their testimony were later dropped.
City leaders have since undertaken significant efforts to reform the Baltimore Police Department, which remains under a federal consent decree because Justice Department investigators found a pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices, especially against Black residents.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who took office in 2020, said the rising cost of settlements demonstrates the importance of continuing to pursue robust reforms aimed at preventing future misconduct. He said anyone skeptical about police reform should be reminded of the alternative.
“This is what happened when we didn’t have the oversight, when we didn’t have the training, when we didn’t go above and beyond to make sure … those people that were sworn to protect and serve hadn’t turned themselves into the biggest gang in Baltimore,” he said during the Wednesday meeting.
Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby said the money spent on settlements could have instead supported programs to benefit the city’s youth, homeless residents and other vulnerable groups.
An attorney for the Baltimore Police Department recommended approval of the $6 million settlement, one of the largest Gun Trace Task Force awards to date. It resolves a 2018 federal lawsuit filed by Shirley Johnson after her father, Elbert Davis Sr., was killed and her mother was seriously injured during the 2010 police chase.
Johnson said her family feels relieved about the settlement after their yearslong battle for justice. She said the entire process was surreal — starting with initial accounts of the crash, which covered up the egregious details of police misconduct that trickled out later. With each new detail, she said, the family was forced to relive painful memories in their search for the truth.
“They were feeding us this lie for over seven years. That’s how long it took before we found out what really happened to our parents,” Johnson told The Associated Press. “It’s crazy to think that Baltimore City police officers, who are supposed to protect and serve, were out there committing all kinds of crimes … and they covered it up for so long.”
Her attorneys said Wednesday that the agreement was long overdue.
“With this settlement, the city has finally taken responsibility for its role in this terrible tragedy,” said attorney Judson Lipowitz.
Davis and his lifelong partner, Phosa Cain, were both in their 80s at the time of the crash. They had just left their daughter’s home after a visit and were driving through west Baltimore when their vehicle was struck by two men fleeing police. Cain survived the injuries she sustained in the crash, but has since died.
The fleeing men were Umar Burley and Brent Matthews, who encountered task force members during an illegal traffic stop that led to a high-speed chase. The disgraced officers initially claimed they witnessed a suspected drug transaction involving Burley and Matthews. Officers found no narcotics in a search of their vehicle, so an officer planted heroin inside the car and both men were arrested, according to court records.
Burley — who was driving during the chase and was later charged with vehicular manslaughter — spent seven years in prison, while Matthews served more than two. Their convictions were vacated in 2017 after officers cooperating with federal investigators admitted that the drugs were planted.
In 2020, city officials approved an $8 million settlement for Burley and Matthews, which included $1.8 million for Davis’ estate.
Wayne Jenkins, who led the Gun Trace Task Force, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges including racketeering, robbery and falsifying records. He admitted to knowing about the planted drugs.
During a 2018 sentencing hearing, Jenkins apologized directly to Johnson and her family: “From the bottom of my heart, I wish I could take that day back and not have stopped that vehicle,” he said.
Johnson said she would have liked a direct apology from Baltimore leadership.
“But at least they’ve acknowledged what our family’s been going through,” she said. “I do feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. We can try to put our lives back together again.”
After numerous high-profile police misconduct cases in recent years, settlement amounts are trending upward nationwide.
Last year, when the city of Minneapolis awarded $27 million to the family of George Floyd, their attorney called it the largest pretrial civil rights settlement ever. In 2020, amid monthslong nationwide racial justice protests, Louisville leaders agreed to pay Breonna Taylor’s family $12 million after police killed her while executing a no-knock warrant.
Several years earlier, Freddie Gray’s family received $5.9 million from the city of Baltimore after he died from spinal injuries sustained in police custody, sparking widespread protests.
Johnson’s attorneys said the Davis family case stands out because the victims were “innocent bystanders” who weren’t even interacting with police when the crash occurred.
“This is really a groundbreaking settlement,” said attorney John Solter Jr. “We think it is entirely warranted.”