BALTIMORE, MD – Footing the bill for the high-powered defense of six Baltimore police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray crippled the city’s police union financially, officials said, until members voted unanimously this year to nearly double their dues.
Now, with the unexpected conclusion of the Gray case this week, the union’s legal bills are expected to sharply drop off — but not the dues. Officials at Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3 say they will continue collecting dues at the higher rate as a precaution, at least as long as Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby is in office.
“Yes, we will continue the same dues structure because we expect Ms. Mosby to continue her inane, malicious prosecution of police officers simply for doing their job,” Gene Ryan said.
The decision is one more example of the continuing impact of the Gray case, and of the animosity that has come to define the relationship between Mosby and the police union since she filed charges against the six officers in May 2015. On Wednesday, Mosby dropped the charges against three of the officers after three others had been acquitted.
Union officials, who say defending the officers has cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars, have railed against Mosby’s decision to press charges, calling her prosecution “malicious” and Gray’s death a tragic accident for which the officers aren’t culpable. They’ve argued the charges had no basis in law.
Mosby has argued that the officers were responsible for Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody. She maintained that stance this week even after dropping all remaining charges. She said Wednesday that she is not “anti-police” but “anti-police brutality” and promised to continue fighting for justice for Baltimore residents.
A spokeswoman for Mosby declined to comment Friday. The case cost the state’s attorney’s office $450,000, according to city officials.
Gray, 25, died in April 2015 after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in the back of a police van where he was placed shackled and handcuffed, but unsecured by a seat belt. His death inspired widespread, mostly peaceful protests against police brutality until rioting, looting and arson broke out on the day of his funeral.
Mosby announced the charges against the officers amid the unrest, and the officers retained a team of more than a dozen defense attorneys with decades of collective experience litigating cases, including against police officers. Before the first trial in December, the attorneys filed a flurry of motions to dismiss the charges, remove Mosby from the case and move the trials out of Baltimore.
Although the attorneys were working at reduced rates for the officers, the union said, the bills piled up. By January, Ryan and other union leaders feared the organization could “quickly become insolvent and unable to provide any of the benefits, legal or otherwise, that are currently offered,” according to union records from the time.
The union spent $800,000 on legal fees in 2015, the vast majority of that sum on the Gray case. That represented a 200 percent increase over the previous year, documents show. Officials also saw “no end in sight” for the mounting costs, they said in a letter explaining the situation to members.
Union officials provided no estimate of their legal expenses so far this year.
At the time, only one of the six officers, William Porter, had gone to trial. While that ended in a hung jury, prosecutors were pressing ahead on the cases against the other five officers and planned to retry Porter.
So union officials were facing mounting legal bills for the foreseeable future and feared the prospect of having to defend more officers in court given Mosby’s stance in the Gray case, which they felt was an aggressive overreach. Meanwhile, protracted litigation with the city over the union’s pension fund continued, and negotiations surrounding a new police contract loomed.
Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said his organization tried to raise money for the union, but the public’s interest in donating fluctuated as cases cycled in and out of the national news. As is often the case in criminal cases against police officers across the country, he said, the defense of the Baltimore officers largely fell to the local union.
“To their credit, the local FOP up there reached deep, deep, deep into their pockets to cover the phenomenally expensive defense of six officers,” Hosko said.
Other outside groups were raising money for the six officers charged, including by selling T-shirts, but Ryan said those funds were used to financially support the officers personally — not the union. The money helped to financially support the four who were not being paid as they awaited trial. The officers charged with felonies were suspended without pay.
The legal fees fell to the union alone, Ryan said. And as the costs mounted, the situation grew more dire.
“We weren’t filing for bankruptcy, but I’ll say this: We were heading down a slippery slope,” Ryan said. “The finances we were putting out and what we were bringing in, they weren’t matching up.”
According to Ryan and union documents from the time, the FOP’s board of directors met in January to discuss their options. At that meeting, the group voted to increase member dues from 1.5 percent of a starting officer’s salary to 2.75 percent.
To help sell the idea to the union’s members, who would have to approve the change through their own vote, Ryan and Treasurer John Nolan wrote a letter to them.
“To put it very bluntly, the cost to defend our members against the aggressive prosecution that appears to be the current norm, is more than our budget can [bear] despite the fact that all attorneys involved are working at highly reduced rates,” they wrote. “Couple this with the fact that each day brings the possibility of similar unwarranted legal prosecution against any of our members and the financial outlook of Lodge #3 is very dim.”
In the letter, Ryan and Nolan wrote that they had wrestled with the decision to request an increase, but ultimately determined it was the only course of action available, given “the current climate of hostility projected toward law enforcement.”
“Who will be next?” they asked.
In response, union members — largely rank-and-file officers — responded with unanimous approval of the rate increase, a move Ryan described as a show of solidarity among police officers.
“That just goes to show that we’re in this for the long haul. The union isn’t going anywhere. We’re going to support each and every one of our members,” he said. “All of our members voted to take extra money out of their pockets, not only for these six, but for all of our members.”
From The Baltimore Sun