Baltimore officials on post-Ferguson panel, now in spotlight

Baltimore's mayor part of national group that drafted recommendations on fixing police-community relations.

After Ferguson, Mo., exploded in riots following the fatal shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown by a police officer, a group of mayors and law enforcement officials met to come up with ways the nation's cities could improve police-community relations.

Two members of the group, which in January issued a report with six recommendations, were Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts — who now find themselves trying to quell turbulence in their own city over the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he sustained while in custody.

One recommendation from the report is proving particularly relevant as protesters agitate for a fuller accounting of how Gray came to be so seriously injured, and officials say they will need until May 1 to complete their investigation: "Ensuring Timely and Accurate Information."

Rawlings-Blake pledged repeatedly that she's pushing for answers, telling the public from a widely-viewed news conference at police headquarters this week: "I … want to reiterate our commitment to moving as quickly as possible to determine exactly how his death occurred."

Still, for many in Baltimore, the answers seem too slow in coming. Wednesday marks 11 days since Gray suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody and four days since he died.

"That seems like a long, long time," community activist Ralph E. Moore Jr. said. "The community needs to know now as opposed to when [city officials] get around to it.

"That's what's creating the anger and frustration and more fear," said Moore, program manager for Restoration Gardens, an apartment and resource center for formerly homeless youth in Park Heights. "It feels like some manipulation could happen, they need the time to put their story together."

But while Moore and other observers say the city's leadership should could have gotten information out in a more timely manner, they also say Baltimore officials appear to have learned the lessons of Ferguson.

"There's universal agreement that Ferguson represented the nadir of appropriate communication and transparency," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a University of Maryland law professor on leave.

Ifill, who has been tweeting frequently and using the #FreddieGray hashtag, said that city officials should have released more information in the week between the 25-year-old's arrest on April 12 and his death on Sunday.

"Where the city could have done better is in the week before Freddie Gray died," Ifill said. "Many people have been asking for answers, to see the police report, why Gray was approached by police. And since his death, we still have unanswered questions."

The recommendations were laid out in the report "Strengthening Police-Community Relations in America's Cities," which was released in January. The working group, made up of mayors and police chiefs, was appointed by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Among the recommendations was a call for a city's "mayor and chief [to] develop a network of organizations with which they can communicate when an incident occurs — organizations that will be helpful in assuring the community that any incident will be appropriately investigated and addressed."

The group also encouraged leaders in cities facing tension to be aware of resources available to help, and noted in their report that "body-worn can be an important tool." Rawlings-Blake has pledged to equip some officers in Baltimore with body cameras as part of a pilot program this year.

The group met twice last year, and issued their report. Rawlings-Blake served as vice president.

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