Pugh: DOJ consent decree on Baltimore policing likely finished this week

"Our goal is to be done this week," Baltimore Mayor Pugh says of consent decree negotiations.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh says her administration is close to completing negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice over reforming the Baltimore Police Department.

"Our goal is to be done this week," Pugh said Monday. "Everybody is urging that we get this done. My folks have been working overtime, till 1 o'clock in the morning."

Activists have pushed for the city to sign the decree before President Barack Obama leaves office next week, on the belief that President-elect Donald Trump will be less concerned about forcing reforms on police.

Pugh, like Obama a Democrat, said her administration is "almost" to the "finish line."

She said the consent decree will place civilians on the trial boards that hear disciplinary cases against officers, upgrade technology and provide a public process to select a monitor to oversee and enforce the agreement.

Pugh has pushed for civilian participation on the trial boards in Baltimore. The General Assembly passed a law last year that allows civilians to join trial boards for the first time, if local police unions agree. The Pugh administration is negotiating with the city police union.

But union President Gene Ryan said the consent decree will "not override collective bargaining" — and placing civilians on trial boards would still require union agreement.

Ryan, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said the union looks forward to enhanced training and equipment — which could prove expensive — mandated by the federal government.

"We want reform. We've recommended raising hiring standards, not lowering them," he said. "While we do want reforms, we don't want them to be rushed. It has the appearance they are rushing this before the new president takes office."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a Democrat, praised the progress Pugh has made.

"We want total reform of a department that has been historically violating people's civil rights," Young said. "She did her due diligence. She got in there and she and her team have really negotiated."

Young called for a Justice Department investigation into the Baltimore Police Department in 2014, after a Baltimore Sun investigation showed the city has faced more than 100 court judgments and settlements involving allegations of police misconduct since 2011.

In a scathing report, Justice Department investigators found that police engaged in a pattern of violating residents' rights, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

Pugh said the reforms included in the Department of Justice consent decree would help improve relations between the police and community.

"We need to bring back confidence in the community in what the police officers do," Pugh said.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the City Council's public safety committee, said he was "ecstatic" to hear the negotiations were almost completed.

He said he hoped an agreement would provide better training for police, increased civilian oversight of the department and better technology. He also hoped the agreement would force police to keep better records of officers who are accused of misconduct repeatedly.

"We know that if it doesn't happen this week it's not going to happen," he said.

The negotiations come as the Baltimore Police Department struggles with staffing shortages amid a crime wave that has produced more than 300 homicides for two years straight.

After the police union charged that the city has far too few officers on the street to ensure safety, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said last week he would reassign 100 officers to patrol duty.

One key to bringing down the homicide rate, criminologists say, is to solve more killings — a task that requires witnesses and cooperation from the community. The city's homicide clearance rate last year was less than 40 percent.

"My biggest concern is safety for the officers and the citizens of Baltimore with this staffing shortage," Ryan said.

Del. Curt Anderson, the chairman of the city House delegation, said he expects the consent decree to include changes that have already been made by the police department.

While the Justice Department was investigating, Anderson said, the police commissioner told legislators he was making changes.

Since Freddie Gray died in April 2015 after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody, the department has enacted new policies and purchased safer police vans with cameras inside.

Anderson said much work remains.

"It's going to be a long process to restore their trust in police officers and the police department," he said. "The trust in some areas is absolutely gone. It will take along time to build up."

Ray Kelly of the West Baltimore advocacy group No Boundaries Coalition, said the decree could help propel more changes to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights and other state-level policies when the General Assembly convenes for its annual 90-day session on Wednesday.

"I am optimistic and I am ready for it," Kelly said. "I am ready for us to be armed with these demands for reforms when we go to Annapolis.

"We know the consent decree is not a panacea or silver bullet. It's going to be a powerful tool."

Kelly said finalizing the consent decree and seeing reforms through will empower many, including those who documented their experiences with police for a report the No Boundaries Coalition compiled before the Justice Department investigation.

"If the consent decree is strong and we move forward, that will make the community feel like they were heard," Kelly said. "For years and decades people in Sandtown-Winchester and all of West Baltimore felt like they were forgotten. We raised our voices as everyday residents, and we were heard and we can actually influence change.

"This is an injection of hope."

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