The Baltimore City Council passed a bill on Monday that bans the use of gag orders in the settlements of all police brutality and discrimination cases and bolsters transparency throughout the city’s litigation system.
The bill, titled Transparency and Oversight in Claims and Litigation, was introduced by Councilwoman Shannon Sneed and City Council President Brandon Scott in July. Dozens of city residents testified before the council in a September hearing about their experiences with gag orders in lawsuit settlements, calling them “hush money” and “abusive.”
Sneed said the bill was partly inspired by a "horrible incident" a pregnant constituent of hers had with the police.
"This is for her, this is for all the women and men out there that had something bad happen to them with Baltimore City Police," Sneed said. "Let's keep pushing and moving to a better Baltimore City where we can be transparent and honest."
The city of Baltimore has often required court-mandated silence from people seeking to settle their cases against city workers in order to receive a pay-out. Meanwhile, city workers are generally allowed to discuss those cases as they please.
A federal appeals court ruling in July held that Baltimore’s gag orders undermine the right to free speech. The judges’ written opinion noted that City Solicitor Andre Davis has said that around 95 percent of the Baltimore’s settlement agreements include some kind of non-disclosure clauses.
Tawanda Jones, an activist whose brother was murdered by police six years ago, called the bill a huge victory.
"This is the moment we've been waiting for," Jones said. "I had to take my name off of my brother's settlement because I refused to be silent. At the end of the day, forced silence condones police violence."
The bill prohibits the Baltimore City Department of Law from approving settlements that forbid claimants to disclose their terms.
The bill also requires the Department of Law to publicly post claims against Baltimore City regarding police misconduct and unlawful discrimination on its website twice a year. It also requires the Department of Law to tell the City Council about significant litigation, meaning a settlement that exceeds $100,000 or a settlement that requires a city employee “take, continue or discontinue a certain action or practice.”
It also bans the Board of Estimates, the city’s financial spending board, from approving settlement agreements that contain gag orders.
The bill has been in the works since last fall and was a collaboration with the ACLU of Maryland and the Campaign for Justice, Safety, and Jobs.
Its passage comes a month after Mayor Jack Young signed an executive order banning the use of gag orders in “unreasonable” city settlements. David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, called the order a “complete sham that accomplishes precisely nothing.”
Young’s order applies only to “unreasonable” cases, whereas the Council’s prohibits gag orders in all police brutality and discrimination cases across the board. The Department of Law -- namely, Solicitor Andre Davis -- has the discretion to decide what is reasonable and what isn’t. That means the city can continue to silence those who settle in police brutality cases, Rocah said.
The bill, with unanimous support from the council, will be sent to Young’s desk.
"The city council, in passing this bill, has reaffirmed its commitment to greater transparency and accountability and the way we operate city government," said Scott. "We encourage the mayor to sign this legislation into law and set a standard that cannot be undone by future administrations."
"I'm urging the the mayor," Sneed said. "We need him to go a step further and sign our bill."