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Critics assail Baltimore police "gag orders"

Crime & Justiceby Fern Shen1:01 pmSep 17, 20190

Tales of beatings and terror as City Council advances bill to end police misconduct “gag” clauses

Pushing back on victims, lawmakers and his former 4th Circuit colleagues, Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis defends, and still requires, non-disclosure agreements

Above: Ashley Overbey Underwood, co-plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Baltimore Police misconduct “gag orders,” asks questions following vote on the anti-gag-order bill. (Fern Shen)

At City Hall last night, people told wrenching stories of how they or their loved ones had been terrorized by Baltimore police officers, only to be silenced by the city’s “gag orders.”

Among them was Ashley Overbey Underwood.

“I turned my head and asked what I was being arrested for and he snapped,” said Overbey, recalling the day in 2012 when officers came to her home in response to her report of a burglary and wound up shocking her with a taser and punching, kicking and arresting her.

“The beating began and went on for what seemed like forever,” said Underwood, who won a $63,000 settlement from the city, but lost half of it when she spoke about the case in response to disparaging comments about her on a newspaper blog site.

The city law department said Underwood had violated a non-disparagement agreement, or gag order, she had been required to sign to receive the money and thus denied her half of her settlement money.

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Activist Tawanda Jones reacts after the Council committee votes in favor of ending gag orders. (Fern Shen)

The Council’s Public Safety Committee unanimously passed a bill last night that parallels a lawsuit brought by Underwood and this website, Baltimore Brew.

Baltimore’s “gag orders” in police misconduct cases unconstitutional, Appeals Court rules (7/1/19)

The legislation – which will now go before the full Council for a vote – would force the city to end gag orders and more fully disclose exactly what police misconduct and discrimination lawsuits have been brought by citizens and how much in settlements has been paid.

Scott Scores Big

The co-sponsors of the bill that voted out of committee last night constitute a veto-proof majority of 12, although that support could conceivably crumble under administration pressure, the ACLU’s Meredith Curtis Goode told Overbey afterwards.

But buoyed by the backing of City Council President Brandon M. Scott, the measure sailed through the committee last night.

With Councilwoman Danielle McCray voting “yes” last night – along with Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, Shannon Sneed, Kristerfer Burnett, Zeke Cohen and Leon F. Pinkett III – it appears that all but two of the 15 Council members support the bill: Administration allies Sharon Green Middleton and Eric T. Costello.

All but two council members – Costello and Middleton – appear to be supporting the bill.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young had tried, but failed, to install Middleton as City Council President last May and has been privately discussing having Costello as a running mate in 2020.

A triumphant Scott, addressing the council chambers after the vote, said the bill was needed to ensure that gag orders would be barred now and in future administrations.

“This is about lasting change,” said Scott, who recently announced a 2020 bid for mayor.

The bill moves next to a crucial 2nd reader vote at next Monday’s Council meeting, Schleifer, the committee chairman, said.

Opposition from Davis

City budget director Robert Cenname testified that the bill could drive up legal costs for the city, and a Law Department attorney briefly stated the Young administration’s opposition to the bill, declining to answer Council members’ detailed questions.

But the driving force behind the retention of gag orders is City Solicitor Andre M. Davis, who did not attend last night’s hearing.

The City Charter puts the solicitor “in sole charge” of legal actions and proceedings, Davis asserts.

In a letter on file with the Council, Davis claimed ultimate authority in legal actions and policy – over the Council and even the mayor.

The City Charter, he said, places the solicitor “in sole charge” of legal actions and “gives no room for the mayor and City Council by ordinance to determine how actions and proceedings of a legal nature are to be handled.”

That’s overreaching, ACLU senior staff attorney David Rocah said last night.

“Yes, he is the city’s lawyer, but he seems to forget who his clients are – the mayor and City Council as elected representatives of the people of Baltimore,” Rocah said.

“And it is the client who gets to decide – under ethics rules that apply to every lawyer, including the the city solicitor – what the client’s decision will be.”

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Mayor Young’s spokesman Lester Davis confers with Councilman Leon Pinkett before last night’s hearing. (Fern Shen)

“Terrorized Into Silence”

As they approached the podium to speak, many witnesses had their mouths covered with black tape to symbolize the silence they say the gag order policy imposes on victims and on journalists reporting about police actions.

Adiena Britt recounted a 2015 incident in which police came to her house (“a home invasion in the guise of a search and seizure warrant”). They pointed a gun at her son and made her and her husband lie face down on the floor.

As part of a settlement she eventually received (she said the BPD had raided the wrong house), her whole family, including her then-12-year-old son, was required to signed non-disclosure agreements.

“We were terrorized into silence,” Britt said, noting that family members still suffer from PTSD and that her son was fearful that talking to his therapist might violate the gag order.

She said she agreed to the settlement because it was the only way to get some form of justice.

“You cannot get any kind of recourse through the [BPD’s] Internal Affairs Division, the State’s Attorney’s Police Integrity Unit or elected officials,” she said. “I know, because I tried all of them.”

Mercella Holloman Hill, who said the police failed to properly investigate the death of her son in 2012, said the bill would open up police conduct to more scrutiny and restore trust in law enforcement.

“The police is the gang,” she said, drawing murmurs of assent from around the room.

Marcella Holloman Hill, with a photo of her son who was shot and killed in 2012. (Fern Shen)

Marcella Holloman Hill with a photo of her son who was shot and killed in 2012. (Fern Shen)

News Reporting Stifled

Brew reporter and editor Mark Reutter testified about how news coverage of police misconduct payouts has been hampered by the gag order policy.

“Our attempts to reach plaintiffs have been discouraged and stopped because of the fear of plaintiffs that if they talked, they would lose some or all of their settlement money,” he said.

That’s why the website joined the ACLU lawsuit with Overbey, he said.

For a committee hearing, the Council's chambers were unusually crowded last night. (Fern Shen)

For a committee hearing, the Council’s chambers were unusually crowded last night. (Fern Shen)

Gagging GTTF Victims

If the gag order policy had not been in effect, the public might have heard more about Gun Trace Task Force officers, like Wayne Jenkins, before they went on a spree of corrupt acts, one speaker said.

“If in 2006 or ’07 or ’08, his first victims had not been gagged, perhaps there would have been a response to the red flag,” said Claire Landers of Jews United for Justice.

She noted that there were multiple jury verdicts and lawsuits against Jenkins – likely quietly handled with cash settlements – before he was finally convicted as part for the federal GTTF prosecution.

Jenkins is now serving a 25-year sentence.

Several speakers took aim specifically at City Solicitor Davis, saying they did not trust him to determine the reasonableness of gag orders under a policy that allows them to continue to be imposed.

Davis’ “every behavior has been antithetical to transparency and accountability,” said Bridal Pearson, chairman of the Civilian Review Board, noting that at Davis’ direction the BPD resisted turning over records of alleged officer misconduct resulting in a lawsuit by the CRB and 15 members of the public.

“The fact that we had to go to that extreme. . . is beyond absurd,” Pearson said, going on to describe the police misconduct cases the board hears regularly.

“It’s heart-wrenching. I feel sickened. Things like this happen every day. It’s shameful in my opinion,” he said.

Pearson urged the committee to pass the bill and stop the policy of restricting the people’s ability to talk about their traumatic experiences with city officers.

“Victims of police misconduct,” Pearson said, “should be able to speak their truth.”

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