U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Tuesday that the Justice Department will examine the best options to improve the Baltimore Police Department in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death, and a full-scale civil rights investigation has not been ruled out.
After meeting with elected leaders, clergy and activists at four locations in Baltimore, Lynch said the city has come to symbolize police and community mistrust — an issue that plagues many cities across America.
"We're going to try to come up with solutions, real solutions for the city of Baltimore to improve this city," Lynch said. "That is our goal. That is our commitment. It is my commitment on behalf of the Department of Justice."
Lynch's visit comes four days after Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced criminal charges against six officers involved in Gray's arrest and transport. He died April 19 — one week after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody.
Much of Lynch's five-hour fact-finding mission was spent behind closed doors listening to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, clergy leaders and activists who frequently protest alleged police brutality and excessive force.
Lynch first met privately with Gray's family at the University of Baltimore. Gray family attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr. said Lynch expressed condolences to the family; the family members declined to comment.
"It was wonderful for the first black woman attorney general in the history of this country to care so much about our city that she came here today to express her full involvement in coming up with a solution to our common problems," Murphy said. He said the culture of policing must change "across the country."
Lynch then held talks for nearly an hour with more than 30 faith leaders and members of the city's congressional delegation.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, told Lynch in a fifth-floor room at the university's student center that "last week was very painful for the people of Baltimore."
Lynch thanked Baltimore's leaders and said it was inspiring to see people come together to reclaim the city.
"This is a flash-point situation," Lynch said. "We lost a young man's life, and it begins to represent so many things."
Lynch reiterated the federal government's pledge to improve the police force's relationship with Baltimore residents, adding: "We're here to hold your hands and provide support."
Afterward, officials praised Lynch for coming to Baltimore so quickly after she was sworn in last week.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said Lynch did not rule out an investigation of "patterns and practices" of possible legal and constitutional violations in the Police Department, similar to a probe the federal agency conducted in Ferguson, Mo.
Cummings called this "a transformative moment" that could change policing across the nation. When Lynch spoke to clergy members, "the ministers made it clear that they do not just see this as a Baltimore issue," he said.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said the group discussed requiring police to receive training in community relations as a prerequisite for obtaining federal grants for hiring and equipment. "'The Justice Department has the power of the purse to begin to restore the trust between the community and the Police Department."
Discussions with Lynch also touched on underlying social issues in Baltimore and the need "to make life better here," Cardin said.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, called the problems "systemic."
"You can't grow up as a little boy or a little girl with a boarded-up home where you have very little hope or help," Ruppersberger said. "And we're going to have to turn that around."
Throughout the day, Lynch was flanked byVanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division; Ronald Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services; Grande Lum, director of the Community Relations Service; and Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland.
The Gray case and its impact on Baltimore could be a key test for Lynch.
In a news conference last Wednesday, Lynch denounced the "senseless acts of violence" on Baltimore streets, and the unrest in Maryland's largest city consumed her first week as the nation's top law enforcement official. Although Mosby has charged the officers, the Justice Department is conducting its own investigation into Gray's death as well as a collaborative review of the Police Department.
Local officials requested federal help in October to curb police abuses after a Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging brutality and other misconduct.
The Sun found that dozens of black residents received battered faces and broken bones during questionable arrests. In nearly all of the cases, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the suspects.
Issues surrounding Gray's arrest mirror those in cases highlighted in The Sun's investigation. As soon as Gray died, Rawlings-Blake questioned why police had stopped Gray in the Gilmor Homes housing complex. He fled after he and an officer locked eyes, but Mosby said Friday that police had no probable cause to stop him.
Before meeting with the mayor, Lynch spent about 30 minutes at the Baltimore Police Department, where she met privately with Batts. Lynch then greeted 12 officers before they hit the streets. The officers, who were on duty April 27 when violence erupted, stood at attention when Lynch entered the room.
She told them, "Thanks to all of you. I'm looking at the hardest-working police officers in America."
Rawlings-Blake then met with Lynch and her top aides for more than an hour at City Hall.
Lynch said she watched Rawlings-Blake "work real hard to bring back hope and leadership to" Baltimore and looks forward to partnering with the mayor as the city moves forward.
The gulf between Baltimore police and residents is a common problem across America, the mayor said. She joked that the relationship is like a marriage and said a separation will not solve the issues.
"I have worked on this issue for years," Rawlings-Blake said. "We can't afford to fail."
The last stop of the day brought Lynch and other agency officials together with Baltimore United Leaders, a group of residents who have protested against police actions. The group included Tre Murphy, Dayvon Love and Tawanda Jones, whose brother died during an altercation with police in a traffic stop in 2012.
"We hope that there's going to be some deliverables that come out of this," Murphy told Lynch.
"You all know there's a lot of work to be done, " Lynch replied. "All of you have worked so hard on these issues. I'm here to listen and meet with young people."
Lynch told the group she has been briefed several times a day on the issues in Baltimore, adding that "there had been a lot of discussions for ways we can provide tools for change."
The deaths of Gray and others have sparked a national debate over the way police departments treat black men.
In North Charleston, S.C., last month, a white officer was charged with murder after a video surfaced showing that he fired eight shots into the back of a fleeing black man. The deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and Tamir Rice in Cleveland at the hands of officers have also stoked outrage in recent months.
In Missouri, two police officers were shot in March in Ferguson after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen last fall sparked protests. Afterward, President Barack Obama dispatched then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder to address the tension.
On Tuesday, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called for Lynch's agency to broaden its investigation to "a full-scale civil rights investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department's policies, procedures and practices."
Young said in a letter to Lynch that the "systemic mistreatment of members of the African-American community by some officers within the Baltimore Police Department helped contribute to a strained relationship between police and the citizens who depend on them for protection and service. The city of Baltimore is in desperate need of a binding federal review of the Police Department in order to repair this fractured relationship."
Asked about Young's letter, Lynch said she would consider the request.