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Baltimore, U.S. Justice Department reach agreement on police reforms

A Baltimore/DOJ consent decree regarding police reforms is 'very, very close'

After five months of negotiation, Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice have agreed to the terms of a consent decree mandating reform of the city Police Department, both sides said Wednesday. The agreement is expected to be approved by top city officials at a special meeting Thursday.

It must also be approved by a U.S. District Court judge before becoming binding. It has not been made public.

"We're going to get it done," Mayor Catherine Pugh told reporters Wednesday. Aides said she and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch would jointly announce the agreement at City Hall at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, after the meeting of the Board of Estimates.

Lynch is scheduled to give a speech on "community policing" in Baltimore Thursday afternoon at the University of Baltimore School of Law, and to meet with community groups and law enforcement officials.

The Baltimore consent decree is expected to mandate changes to a range of policing policies, tactics and operations, including how officers conduct street enforcement, respond to sexual assault complaints, and interact with youths, protesters and those with mental illnesses.

It is also expected to require the Police Department to introduce new layers of oversight for officers, new methods of tracking misconduct and other data, new training, and major investments in modern technologies — including mobile computers in patrol vehicles — to streamline operations and enhance data retention and analysis.

Pugh has said the agreement will call for civilians to serve on police trial boards that assess officer wrongdoing, but police union officials say the decree cannot supersede the union's collective bargaining agreement with the city, which bars civilian participation.

The mayor controls three of the five votes on the Board of Estimates. Interim City Solicitor David Ralph and Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow, both of whom work for Pugh, sit on the board. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt are also on the panel.

The board must approve all major city expenditures. In accepting the agreement, city officials will be pledging to spend the money necessary to carry it out — expected to be tens of millions of dollars.

Members of the public will be allowed to comment at the meeting.

The agreement comes little more than a week before the inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump on Jan. 20, which Justice Department officials and city leaders had set as a deadline for the deal. They have expressed concern that Trump and his pick for U.S. attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, might not support the agreement.

During a daylong confirmation hearing Tuesday, Sessions expressed skepticism over the use of consent decrees to address civil rights abuses by police, but declined to speak specifically on the Baltimore agreement.

"I think there is concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong," Sessions said. "These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that."

The agreement comes at a time of intense scrutiny for law enforcement agencies across the country and particularly in Baltimore, where the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015 prompted unrest, rioting and the unsuccessful prosecution of six police officers.

It follows a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department, partially in response to the unrest, that concluded that the Baltimore Police Department has engaged in unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices for years, many of which disproportionately affected residents in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

In a 163-page report in August, federal investigators said city police often conducted unconstitutional stops and searches of city residents, improperly disregarded sexual assault complaints and violated protesters' free speech rights, among other violations.

In lieu of an immediate lawsuit to resolve the problems, the Justice Department agreed to enter into negotiations with the city to reach a consent decree ensuring that the city Police Department "delivers services in a manner that respects the rights of residents, increases trust between officers and the communities they serve, and promotes public and officer safety."

That "agreement in principle" outlined general areas where both sides agreed improvements were needed — the same areas now expected to be reflected in the consent decree.

Once the consent decree is signed by both sides, it will be filed jointly in U.S. District Court as a proposed settlement within a Justice Department lawsuit related to the summer findings report. A federal judge overseeing the case will then assess the proposal to determine if it is fair, reasonable and adequately serves the public good, experts said. It's unclear how long that will take.

The judge will be randomly assigned when the case is formally filed in court, court officials said.

The judge could approve the agreement through a written order, experts said, or schedule a hearing to gather input from other stakeholders, such as community groups or the local police union. Outside groups could potentially file motions to intervene in the case to register objections.

Once approved by the court, the agreement is expected to take years to implement, all under the oversight of the court and a federal monitor paid by the city. The monitor, also subject to court approval, could be announced as part of the agreement, or the two sides could agree to work through a designated process to appoint the monitor later, experts said.

There's no certainty that the agreement will be approved and become binding before Trump's inauguration.

A review of recent consent decrees around police reform in other cities shows agreements submitted to the courts typically took months to be approved by a judge.

Cleveland's consent agreement was approved by a judge about two weeks after it was filed in May 2015. But in Albuquerque, where a consent decree was reached in October 2014, approval took eight months. In New Orleans, a consent decree was announced in July 2012 and was not approved until the following January. It took about a month for an agreement struck in Seattle in July 2012 to be given provisional approval.

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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