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‘Hush Money’ and ‘Gag Orders’: Baltimore, Other Cities Settle with Police Brutality Victims on the Condition They Remain Silent

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The police beat, harass and abuse you, then offer you some money in a settlement on the condition that you keep quiet about what happened to you, or the city can sue you for defamation and take away your money.  This is what is known as a nondisparagement clause, and cities such as Baltimore are using this tactic to silence police brutality victims, and in the process, suppress the voices of the oppressed and manipulate the poor.

As was reported by Julia Craven in the Huffington Post, Baltimore uses nondisparagement clauses, which are designed to prevent alleged victims from sharing details on their experience and the officers involved.  The state of Maryland does not require these clauses in such contracts, but rather the city of Baltimore has decided to incorporate them into 95 percent of police settlements. Nondisparagement clauses are commonly used among private parties in contract negotiations, but they raise eyebrows when used in contracts involving a citizen and a city government.

“Generally, the commonplace area you see nondisparagement agreements is in the general contracts between consumers and sellers,” Michael Smith, a civil litigation lawyer based in Los Angeles, told Huffington Post.

“The city does it to keep people who have beaten up by the police silent,” said Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP.

Jealous said these clauses create an environment that makes it easier for more such cases to spring up.

“It protects officers who are prone to violence and ends up costing the city more money at the very least — not to mention a trail of victims across the city,” he added.

The case of Ashley Overbey demonstrates the inherent problems with nondisparagement clauses in police misconduct cases.  On April 30, 2012, Oberey claims she was thrown to the ground, beaten, tasered and charged with assault by police during what was supposed to be a police investigation into a robbery at her apartment.  The city of Baltimore settled with her for $63,000, on the condition that she keep quiet about her mistreatment, and would not drop the seven criminal charges against her until she settled.  Online criticism of Oberbey and claims by whites that she made up the story to collect the money caused her to respond, triggering the nondisparagement clause and leading to the city seizing half of Overbey’s settlement.

Other cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis and Colorado Springs include the nondisparagement clauses, while the city of Minneapolis has chosen not to do so in the name of openness and transparency.  Susan Hunt, the mother of Darrien Hunt, 22, who was fatally shot by Utah police last year with four bullets to the back, rejected a $900,000 settlement that would have barred her from discussing the case.  She characterized the deal as a “gag order” and “hush money” that would not have allowed her to speak the truth regarding what happened to her son.  However, for many struggling victims and families from economically depressed communities, the money is dangled over their heads and rejection is not an option.

Such agreements are criticized for their vagueness, and do not specify whether they cover the victim speaking about the offending officer’s involvement in other cases, or speaking negatively about the police department in general. The $6.4 million Freddie Gray settlement did not include this type of agreement because the incident had already been widely covered in the media.

Baltimore paid $12 million in police misconduct cases between 2010 and 2014.  Cities throughout the nation are paying an ever-increasing amount to settle police misconduct lawsuits, with the ten largest cities paying $248.7 million last year, including allegations of shooting, beating and wrongful imprisonment, a 48 percent increase from 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal. Further, these cities have paid $1.02 billion over the past five years, which jumps to $1.4 billion when property damage, car collisions and other police incidents are included.

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