Federal judge approves Baltimore policing consent decree, denying Justice Department request for delay

A federal judge approved Friday the proposed consent decree between Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice, mandating sweeping police reforms at a time of intense violence and deep community distrust in the city police.

In issuing the order, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar denied the Justice Department's request that he not sign the agreement for at least 30 days so Trump administration officials could assess the deal — which was reached in the waning days of the Obama administration.

"The time for negotiating the agreement is over," Bredar wrote. "The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not."

The order is effective immediately, and Bredar gave the parties two weeks to deliver a new timeline for implementing the deal.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement Friday that he supports reform but has "grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city."

The consent decree calls for significant new restrictions on officers, including limits on when and how they can engage individuals suspected of criminal activity. It orders more training for police on de-escalation tactics and interactions with youths, those with mental illness and protesters, as well as more supervision for officers.

The deal also requires the city to invest in better technology and equipment, and for the Police Department to enhance civilian oversight and transparency.

Sessions said the consent decree was "negotiated during a rushed process by the previous administration," and at a time when Baltimore "is facing a violent crime crisis." He cited statistics outlining a drop in arrests and a rise in homicides in the city.

"The mayor and police chief in Baltimore say they are committed to better policing and that there should be no delay to review this decree, but there are clear departures from many proven principles of good policing that we fear will result in more crime," Sessions said. "The citizens of Baltimore deserve to see a real and lasting reduction in the fast-rising violent crime threatening their city."

Mayor Catherine Pugh said the judge's approval of the deal represented "a great victory for the citizens of Baltimore as well as our Police Department."

She said she knows Sessions' concerns about crime "are real" but believes the reforms required under the consent decree will make the city safer.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in a statement that he was pleased by the judge's decision, which "will support and, in fact, accelerate many needed reforms in the areas of training, technology, and internal accountability systems."

"We expect that this process will lead us to the goal we all share: a Baltimore Police Department that leads the progress of the policing profession," he said.

The Justice Department could appeal Bredar's order, but only on very narrow grounds — such as arguing the judge had made a mistake or lacked jurisdiction, legal observers said.

The Justice Department and the city both declined to comment on the possibility.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has filed a motion to intervene in the case, called the decision "a true victory — the result of hard work, tremendous activism and great lawyering."

"Change does not happen overnight. But this agreement provides the necessary framework to eradicate widespread and systemic police misconduct through sustainable reform," Ifill said in a statement.

Lawrence Grandpre, of the local grassroots think-tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said Bredar's decision marked the beginning of a journey for Baltimore that he and other local advocates for police reform will be watching closely.

"It can be one of two roads — one where it becomes a very technical, abstract process that's disconnected from community, and one where there's a real focus on community empowerment and this is a tool to larger, more structural police reform," Grandpre said. "Obviously we are going to do everything we can to push it down the road that more accurately reflects the idea of being accountable to community."

A federal monitor now must be selected to oversee implementation of the consent decree. The monitor will answer to Bredar.

Acting City Solicitor David Ralph said Baltimore has been working with the Justice Department on a request for proposals from would-be monitors, and "will be finalizing it soon."

A Community Oversight Task Force also must be created within 90 days to review current public oversight of the Police Department and recommend improvements.

City officials have said they expect implementation of the consent decree to cost tens of millions of dollars over the course of several years.

Pugh included $10 million in her first budget to pay for consent decree reforms, and Gov. Larry Hogan committed $2 million in state funding. Police expect to spend at least $7.5 million a year for five years to comply with the decree. The deal does not come with federal funding attached, though Pugh has said she will seek federal support for its intiatives.

Bredar's ruling came one day after a public hearing in which nearly 50 members of the public spoke, most registering their support for the deal and their opposition to any delay.

John Gore, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, asked Bredar at the hearing to "hold off" on signing the deal for at least 30 days. Bredar denied the agency's motion earlier in the week to delay the hearing by 90 days.

Bredar wrote Friday that the Justice Department's motion "could best be interpreted as a request for an additional opportunity to consider whether it wants the Court to enter the decree at all, or at least the current version of it."

That was "problematic," Bredar wrote.

Bredar noted that at a previous hearing in the case in February, the Justice Department had "affirmed its commitment to this draft and urged the Court to sign it."

Legal observers suggested the Justice Department could seek amendments to the consent decree if it wants to change parts of the agreement Sessions feels are problematic.

Ian Prior, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to identify specific provisions that Sessions found troubling but said "it's fair to say there are several areas of concern."

Ralph said Friday the city is "open to considering any issues they may have, and those lines of communication are open."

Any changes must be agreed to by both parties and approved by Bredar, he added.

Vanita Gupta, who was head of Justice's Civil Rights Division under the Obama administration, said Friday that Sessions "should join the court, the Mayor, the Commissioner and the people of Baltimore in welcoming this step forward and getting to work on reform."

The consent decree was reached in January after Gupta led a sweeping Justice Department investigation of the Police Department and found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the city — particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

The city had invited the Justice Department to conduct the investigation in 2015 after rioting occurred following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody.

Bredar, in his order Friday, said the report from the Justice Department's investigation of the Police Department was "deeply troubling."

He wrote that the consent decree is "highly intrusive on the day-to-day operations" of the Police Department and will cost the city millions, but is also "comprehensive, detailed and precise" and "appears to be balanced and well-calibrated to achieve the parties' shared, jointly-stated objectives."

"The problems that necessitate this consent decree are urgent," he wrote. "The parties have agreed on a detailed and reasonable approach to solving them. Now, it is time to enter the decree and thereby require all involved to get to work on repairing the many fractures so poignantly revealed by the record."

krector@baltsun.com

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