Baltimore Sun

$6M settlement ‘justice’ for parents killed amid GTTF chase

Payout among highest tied to disgraced police task force

- By Darcy Costello

Shirley Johnson and other members of her family didn’t learn the truth of their parents’ 2010 crash until more than seven years later, when they saw on the news a photo of the car and their father, who died from the collision.

The truth Johnson said was “hidden” from family members: The crash in the Grove Park neighborho­od of West Baltimore was the result of an attempted stop and police chase by plaincloth­es Gun Trace Task Force officers.

The car that collided with her parents, Elbert Davis Sr. and his partner, Phosa Cain, was fleeing from GTTF officers, who are accused of later planting heroin in the fleeing car to “cover their tracks.”

“We were just devastated that these police officers that are out to protect and serve, they were the ones out committing crimes and causing accidents,” Johnson told The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday, shortly after the city’s Board of Estimates approved a settlement with the family.

“My parents didn’t have a chance. They were sitting ducks, when they came speeding through and hit my father’s car,” she said.

Baltimore’s spending board signed off on a $6 million settlement with surviving family members of Davis and Cain. The amount marks one of the most substantia­l settlement­s to date connected with the disgraced Baltimore Police task force.

Officials noted in the meeting that the city has paid out more $22.2 million for the actions of the rogue police unit — money that could have been spent elsewhere on services for residents.

There are five remaining lawsuits related to the GTTF officers, according to Baltimore Police’s chief of legal affairs, Justin Conroy. He said officials also are monitoring two unfiled claims that may turn into lawsuits.

Johnson, the eldest of 10 siblings, said the conclusion of their federal lawsuit allows for closure and the settlement represents justice for her parents. The family, she added, misses their “companions­hip.” Cain died in 2018, unrelated to the crash.

“Our parents were always there for us. We had every holiday, birthday, anniversar­y, everything we spent together,” Johnson said. “We miss that so much.”

The connection between their absence and the Gun Trace Task Force, she said, is “too hard to bear.”

The task force’s actions, including civil rights violations and the theft of drugs and money using the authority of their badges, has led to dozens of civil settlement­s, hundreds of dropped or vacated criminal cases stemming from GTTF officers, and more than a dozen conviction­s of police officers.

In April 2010, then-Baltimore Police officers Wayne Jenkins, Sean Suiter and Ryan Guinn attempted to box in a car that then fled. The officers claimed they’d seen a drug transactio­n; Johnson’s attorneys say the stop and pursuit were unlawful.

The driver of that car, Umar Burley, said he didn’t know the men were officers and feared he was being robbed. In fleeing, he struck Johnson’s parents, killing 86-yearold Davis and injuring Cain, who was then 81 years old.

Burley’s car didn’t have anything illegal, so officers planted more than 25 grams of heroin, leading to the arrest and conviction of Burley and his passenger, Brent

Matthews. The two men served years in prison, before both saw their conviction­s vacated in 2017. Burley and Matthews also were paid nearly $8 million in a related civil settlement.

Jenkins, who later led the GTTF, pleaded guilty to civil rights violations for participat­ing in the coverup and is serving 25 years in prison for crimes including robberies and selling drugs. He apologized at his sentencing hearing to Burley and Davis’ family members, but implied he hadn’t planted the drugs.

Suiter was fatally shot the day before he was slated to testify about the incident to a grand jury. His death has been ruled a homicide, but questions have been raised about whether he committed suicide.

In Wednesday’s Board of Estimates hearing, Conroy said Jenkins and Guinn were not collecting pensions, but that the other named defendants would be eligible to collect it, depending on their years of service at retirement.

Mayor Brandon Scott said at the meeting that the settlement highlights the importance of the city police department’s reforms: “This is what happened when we didn’t have the oversight, when we didn’t have the training, when we didn’t go above and beyond to make sure that we were

“We were just devastated that these police officers that are out to protect and serve, they were the ones out committing crimes and causing accidents.” — Shirley Johnson, daughter of Elbert Davis Sr.

checking that those people that were sworn to protect and serve hadn’t turned themselves into the biggest gang in Baltimore.”

The civil rights violations by officers involved in Davis’ death didn’t come to light until Jenkins was indicted in November 2017, according to attorney Judson H. Lipowitz, whose firm, Azrael, Franz, Schwab, Lipowitz & Solter, represente­d Davis’ family.

Had the family’s 2018 lawsuit proceeded to trial in May, Lipowitz and attorney John Solter were prepared to argue first that the GTTF officers, including Jenkins and Guinn, were responsibl­e, then to bring claims against Baltimore Police for “culpabilit­y” in allowing officers to violate the Constituti­on and citizens’ rights.

“The entire chain of command of the Baltimore Police Department knew about these unconstitu­tional practices, tolerated it and did nothing to prevent it, for decades,” Lipowitz said.

The firm has recovered $7.9 million in total for the Davis family for the crash. An earlier roughly $1.9 million settlement was reached with Burley and later covered by the city.

For Johnson, thinking about what her parents went through that day has motivated her.

Medical personnel originally thought her mother’s arm was wounded because it was bloodied, Johnson said, but later realized it was blood from her father’s head that Cain had been wiping from his face so it wouldn’t go into his eyes.

Her father, she added, had to be cut out of his vehicle, and was pronounced dead later that day.

“That’s what gave us the energy to keep on fighting for them. We knew that they deserved justice, which wasn’t coming quickly,” Johnson said.

Now, she said, they’ve gotten it.

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