Victims of Police Abuse Must be Free to Speak Out

Claire Landers is co-chair of Jews United for Justice’s Baltimore Leadership Council.

Imagine you endured treatment by a city employee that caused such physical and emotional pain, lost wages, and medical bills that the city recognized your suffering with a legal settlement of compensation. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that you would have the right to speak about what happened, where and when you decided to?

On Monday, Oct. 28, the Baltimore City Council unanimously passed a bill, titled “Transparency and Oversight in Claims and Litigation,” that will end the City’s use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) when negotiating settlements arising from police misconduct. Now it is up to Mayor Jack Young, who supported this measure when serving as a council member, to sign this bill into law.

Baltimore City routinely uses NDAs to legally “gag” and financially intimidate victims; by publicly sharing details of police misconduct, they risk voiding their settlements. Imposing such ‘gag rules’ is an unfair power play by a government entity to silence victims. So it should come as no surprise that a federal court recently found that, yes, Baltimore City’s NDAs in these situations impose an unconstitutional restriction on an individual’s free speech.

Legislation to eliminate Baltimore City’s NDAs would serve an even broader public interest: When victims can freely choose to share their stories, whether online, at a community meeting, or with the press, it lifts the heavy veil of secrecy shrouding the Baltimore Police Department from scrutiny or public accountability.

Consider this “real-life” case: After joining the BPD in 2004, an officer quickly racked up a string of four lawsuits for police misconduct and by 2009, three victims prevailed by jury verdict or negotiated settlements for abusive treatment they suffered from this young officer. Notwithstanding, this officer’s career not only survived, but thrived, despite more red flags years later. He was promoted, praised as “a cop’s cop” who commanders counted on for high-profile gun busts.

No wonder it felt like the earth shifted under Baltimore City last June when a federal judge sentenced this officer, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, to 25-years in federal prison for a litany of crimes as the ringleader of BPD’s notorious Gun Trace Task Force squad.

So it’s worth considering: What if the public had heard the first-person accounts from Jenkin’s earliest victims? Would seeing one officer’s name pop up repeatedly way back in 2006 or ‘07 or ‘08 or ‘09 cut short his now-infamous career?

NDAs prop up a larger system that shields corrupt cops. Officers like Jenkins fly under the radar because they know how “to work the system” to evade exposure and consequences. This system also includes Maryland’s public employee privacy laws that place police misconduct records under seal; an opaque internal disciplinary process with a dysfunctional bureaucracy; deficient record-keeping and antiquated technology. This system’s barriers prevent most anyone, whether inside or out, from seeing the dots indicative of corruption, nevermind connecting them.

As a local leader of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), I remain inspired by my fellow Jews here who open their hearts to learn new truths about systems that create inequalities and injustices; they become eager to use their own voices to speak up for changes that move us all closer to more equality and more justice in Baltimore and statewide.

People seem to recognize immediately that it is eminently unfair and plain wrong for a government entity to “gag” individuals from sharing their own experiences. Now that you know about Baltimore’s gag rules, I hope you may be moved to act. Two minutes spent contacting Mayor Young to urge that he sign this bill will make a very meaningful impact: Ending the gag rule is a measure of justice, long overdue.

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