Justice Department registers 'grave concerns' with Baltimore consent decree, even as residents express hope

The U.S. Department of Justice has "grave concerns" about its proposed police reform agreeement with the city of Baltimore, its attorney told a federal judge on Thursday.

John Gore, deputy assistant attorney general in the federal agency's Civil Rights Division, said officials there are no longer sure the consent decree — reached in the waning days of the Obama administration — supports public safety, citing recent increases in city crime.

He asked U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar to "hold off" on signing the decree for at least 30 days so officials of the new Trump administration could "analyze it and re-engage with the city if necessary."

The Justice Department's request came at a hearing where, one after another, Baltimore residents, advocates and community organizers stood before Bredar and asked him to approve the deal without delay. Many said the consent decree isn't perfect, but represented a step in the right direction.

Acting city solicitor David Ralph said the agreement was crafted with deep input from the community, careful consideration of public safety and measures to better train and equip police officers.

"We don't believe delay is necessary," Ralph said. "We would like to move forward."

While, Gore said, the Justice Department "certainly agrees that there is a critical need for police reform" in Baltimore, it also believes reform is "really the job of local officials," and is skeptical of agreements across the country that mandate federal oversight of local law enforcement.

Bredar told Gore that he understood his "viewpoint" but gave no indication of how he might rule or whether he would consider granting a delay. He must approve the consent decree for it to become binding.

The differing opinions, voiced during a nearly four-hour public hearing in Baltimore's federal courthouse, illustrated the sharp divide between the Obama and Trump administrations when it comes to police reform.

It has also put Bredar in the unique — and perhaps unprecedented — position of having to consider a federal consent decree on policing that is not fully supported by the Justice Department, policing experts said.

The hearing came one day after Bredar denied as "untimely" a written motion by the Justice Department for a 90-day pause in the case so Trump administration officials can review the proposed deal.

That motion, filed Monday, cited Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent directive to top deputies within the department to review a range of law enforcement efforts in the country — including consent decrees — to see if they are in line with President Donald Trump's focus on reducing crime.

At Thursday's hearing, Bredar pointed out to Gore that the Justice Department already had signed the proposed consent decree with the city, but otherwise listened to Gore's comments without responding.

Several dozen members of the public also spoke, many of them calling for the consent decree to move forward, including a few mothers who said their sons were shot and killed by city police over the years.

Several speakers denounced discriminatory policing affecting black residents in Baltimore. They asked the court not to let the police department off the hook.

The first speaker, Alecia Dean, began with a statement: "Indeed, justice delayed is justice denied."

The second speaker, Monique Dixon, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said attempts by the Baltimore Police Department to reform itself have been unsuccessful, and have done little to reduce excessive force and racial profiling by officers.

After the hearing, Dixon filed a motion to intervene in the case on behalf of Community Churches for Community Development, a nonprofit organization working to improve living conditions in Baltimore, and Ralph E. Moore Jr., a longtime city activist. Bredar had not ruled on that motion late Thursday.

The city and the police department invited the Justice Department into Baltimore in 2015 after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody and the subsequent rioting.

The consent decree was reached in January after a sweeping investigation of the Baltimore Police Department uncovered what the Obama Justice Department said was widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the city — particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

The deal proposes putting significant restrictions on officers, including limits on when and how they can engage individuals suspected of criminal activity. It orders more supervision for officers, as well as training on de-escalation tactics and interactions with youths, protesters and those with mental illnesses.

It requires enhanced civilian oversight and more transparency. It would require the city to invest in better technology and equipment. It is expected to cost the city tens of millions of dollars over the course of several years.

City leaders, including Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, have said they are committed to reforms no matter what, but that the consent decree would make it easier to implement the reforms and attract outside funding. They urged members of the public to speak in support of the deal at Thursday's hearing.

Greta Carter-Willis said her 14-year-old son Kevin Cooper was fatally shot by a Baltimore police officer in her home in 2006. Prosecutors determined the shooting was justified but Carter-Willis said it was not.

"Please do not delay it," Carter-Willis said of the consent decree. "We need reform in this city, especially in the use of force, to [encourage] de-escalation."

She became emotional as she described her son holding a plastic dust pan in his hand, which she believes was the reason he was shot. "A plastic dust pan!" she repeated, her body beginning to shake.

Outside the courtroom, she slumped on a couch and wailed.

Advocates for sexual assault survivors, the transgender community, people with mental disabilities and the immigrant community spoke, saying their concerns about policing in the city have been ignored for years. A retired Baltimore County police sergeant, Randy Williams, also spoke, saying police "need outside intervention."

Isaac Wilson, a black high school student, said he has experienced discrimination in the city, and "the closest thing I've seen to justice is this consent decree."

David Rocah, of the ACLU of Maryland, urged the approval of the consent decree despite "the current DOJ's clear intent to abdicate [its] responsibility" to help oversee the nation's local police departments, saying it is "a necessary and important step" toward fixing the relationship between police and residents in Baltimore.

Moore, the longtime city activist for whom the NAACP requested to intervene in the case, grew up in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested. He said the relationship between the poor community and police is "at best tense" — and has been deteriorating for years.

"We need this consent decree. We need it fully enforced and fully funded," Moore told Bredar. "And we need it now more than ever."

krector@baltsun.com

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