Judge denies DOJ request for pause in Baltimore consent decree; hearing to proceed as scheduled Thursday

Baltimore residents will have an opportunity in court Thursday to voice their thoughts on the proposed consent decree between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice after a judge rejected the Trump administration's last-minute attempt this week to delay the hearing.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said in an order Wednesday that granting the Justice Department's request for a 90-day pause in the case "at the eleventh hour would be to unduly burden and inconvenience the Court, the other parties, and, most importantly, the public."

It was not immediately clear what the order means for the future of the police reform agreement. Bredar did not address the Justice Department's broader argument that top officials in the new administration needed more time to review the deal, which was struck in the waning days of the Obama administration.

The hearing has been scheduled since February. Justice Department attorneys asked for the continuance in the case late on Monday, citing a new directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the department to review all such agreements nationwide to assess whether they are consistent with the Trump administration's focus on reducing crime.

The Justice Department declined to comment on Bredar's ruling Wednesday.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said she was "pleased" by it.

"The City of Baltimore is ready to move forward to rebuild the important relationship which exists between the community and our police department," Pugh said in a statement.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — which has worked for months to prepare local residents for the hearing — said Bredar's ruling suggests he has "a very clear eye about this case."

She said the courts "are abiding by the law and making proper judgements and not allowing themselves to be muscled or taken in by spurious arguments that the Justice Department needs more time."

But Ifill warned the ruling "does not suggest anything different about the Department of Justice or their attempt to move away from police reform" under Sessions.

She said the department's attempt to cancel a hearing designed to elicit public input shows its "lack of regard and respect for the pain of the people of Baltimore who are waiting for closure.

"It is important that the judge did not allow this."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called on Baltimore residents to show up at the courthouse "en masse" on Thursday to show their support for the police reform agreement and their opposition to any delay.

He said the consent decree will help Baltimore build a "world-class police force."

In their motion, Justice Department attorneys cited President Donald J. Trump's executive order in February calling on the department "to prioritize crime reduction" and Sessions' formation of a task force to ensure that the agency is using its resources to push that agenda.

President Barack Obama used the Justice Department to investigate local police departments and the consent decree process to promote reform.

The Obama Justice Department turned to Baltimore after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Investigators found a pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

The city and the Justice Department completed negotiations on the consent decree before Trump took office.

Ian D. Prior, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said before Bredar issued his order that the request for a delay did not mean Sessions opposes police reform.

"The Attorney General agrees with the need for police reform and the need to rebuild public confidence in law enforcement in Baltimore," Prior said. "Permitting more time for the Department to examine the proposed consent decree will help ensure that the best result is achieved for the people of the city and ensure that the BPD can carry out its mission of fostering trust with community members, safeguarding life and property, and promoting public safety through enforcing the law in a fair and impartial manner."

In denying the motion, Bredar wrote that the Justice Department offered "no real prejudice to them if the hearing proceeds as scheduled."

Pugh and other top Baltimore officials have pledged to reform the city's Police Department whether the Justice Department pursues the consent decree or not.

But they have also said having a legally binding order will help give the public confidence in the reform, and bolster her case for obtaining outside money and support to fund new technology and training for the police department.

When Justice attorneys hear from residents on Thursday, Pugh said, "they'll get a flavor of why this is important."

Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department was pleased with Bredar's decision, "which affords us the opportunity to continue to strengthen our relationships with the community and build upon our reform."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's public safety committee, called the ruling a "huge lift off our shoulders."

He said comments from Trump and Sessions have led many to believe they are "anti-Civil Rights and anti-equality."

"We can now focus on how to do things moving forward," he said.

Young said he was "really happy" about the ruling, but not surprised the Trump administration had lost an argument in court.

"I'm sure the judge knows we need to reform our police department," Young said.

Anyone interested in speaking at Thursday's hearing will be allowed to sign up beginning at 9 a.m. outside Courtroom 1A at the U.S. District Court at 101 West Lombard St., according to a separate order from Bredar.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Speakers will be heard in the order they signed up, for three minutes each.

While the court "hopes to hear from all who sign up," Bredar has said, the hearing will end at 5 p.m. regardless of whether everyone who signed up to speak has been heard.

krector@baltsun.com

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