Baltimore, Justice Department reach consent decree agreement on police reform

In a historic agreement, the city of Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice signed a consent decree Thursday that will commit the city to sweeping police reforms aimed at restoring community trust in city cops, and ensuring that they conduct everyday police work within the bounds of the Constitution.

The reforms outlined in the 227-page agreement will put significant restrictions on officers as they battle a two-year spike in violence, including limits on when and how they can engage individuals suspected of criminal activity.

The decree orders more officer supervision and training on de-escalation tactics and interactions with youths, those with mental illnesses and protesters, and creates a special citizen task force to find ways to enhance civilian oversight of the department, among other changes.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, appearing at City Hall with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and other officials, said it was a "great day" in Baltimore.

"I believe this document represents the citizens of Baltimore well," Pugh said. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be standing here."

The agreement, which will require the approval of a federal judge to become binding, is the product of months of negotiations between the city and the Justice Department.

The Justice Department announced a "collaborative review" of city police days after The Baltimore Sun revealed in 2014 that the city had paid millions of dollars to settle more than 100 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.

The federal agency expanded that review into a full-scale civil rights investigation in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody provoked criticism, protests and eventually rioting.

Justice investigators found a years-long pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory practices.

Lynch said she is not under any "illusions that change is easy," but called the deal "robust" and "comprehensive," and said it would make a difference in the lives of Baltimore residents.

"This agreement will help the Baltimore Police Department gain the cooperation of the community and its residents to fight and prevent crime," Lynch said. "I'm confident that we are equal to the challenge."

The union that represents rank-and-file officers issued a terse statement saying that it had not been given a role in the talks.

"Despite continued assurances by representatives of the Department of Justice that our organization would be included in the Consent Decree negotiations, no request to participate was ever forthcoming and we were not involved in the process," the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 said in a statement.

The union said Thursday that its leadership, members and attorneys had not had a chance to read the document but that "a response will be forthcoming at the appropriate time."

The negotiations were overseen by Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. She said the agreement would help "end the legacy of Baltimore's 'zero-tolerance' policing."

Davis said that he wants the department to become a model for law enforcement agencies across the country, and that officers would benefit from the deal as much as anyone in the city.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby called the consent decree "a step in the right direction toward the necessary reforms to ensure accountability, transparency, and trust among our communities and law enforcement."

The agreement requires:

•That officers introduce themselves by name and rank and refrain from forcing people not suspected of crimes to cooperate.

•That officers fill out forms for each stop, recording the location and race, ethnicity and age of the person stopped.

•That a task force be appointed to study and make recommendations to improve the Civilian Review Board, which considers complaints against officers.

•That officers receive eight hours of training each year on how to better engage the public, work with neighborhood and community groups, and interact with young people, members of the LGBT community, the homeless and the mentally ill.

•Notification of a supervisor before an officer makes an arrest on minor charges, including obstructing, hindering or resisting an officer, disorderly conduct, failure to obey an officer, gambling, making a false statement or trespassing.

•Efforts to better coordinate with Baltimore City Public Schools police.

•Improved training for sexual assault detectives and increased oversight of their investigations.

•That officers who carry a firearm also carry one less-lethal weapon.

•That all vans and police cruisers have functioning seat belts, and that all detainees be secured with them while being transported.

•Easier methods for filing complaints, including a 24-hour hotline.

•Significant upgrades to the department's technology.

Davis and other top commanders have said the department has already made some of the changes outlined in the decree.

The agreement prohibits officers from:

•Using chokeholds or neck holds unless deadly force is authorized and no other alternative exists.

•Basing an investigatory stop or detention "only on an individual's response to the presence of police officers, such as an individual's attempt to avoid contact with an officer."

•Stopping and detaining people who are in the company of others suspected of a crime without being able to make a case that the person has committed a crime or is about to.

•Frisking a person without making the case that the person is dangerous, or frisking or searching LGBT people for the purpose of assigning a gender based on the person's anatomy.

The consent decree is likely the last to be reached under President Barack Obama, whose administration used the process often as the nation grappled with a wave of deaths of mostly young black men at the hands of police.

Gray, 25, died in April 2015 after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. His death and the protests that followed drew international attention. On the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots, looting and arson.

In a 163-page report released in August, justice investigators said the Police Department had for years engaged in discriminatory and unconstitutional policing that disproportionately affected residents in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

Investigators said the Police Department routinely conducted unconstitutional stops and searches, disregarded reports of sexual assault, violated the free speech rights of protesters and routinely used excessive force, including on youths and people with mental disabilities.

They also said the department did not properly oversee or train its officers, lacked basic technology, and had insufficient mechanisms in place to track and retain data.

Officials in Baltimore and at the Justice Department said they sped up negotiations after Donald J. Trump won the presidential election. Local elected leaders and community activists had expressed concern that the deal would fall apart if left to the incoming Trump administration to finalize. Trump's attorney general nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has criticized consent decrees.

Lynch, speaking later Thursday at the University of Baltimore School of Law, sought to hammer home the role she sees the Justice Department taking in reforming local police departments.

The city's Board of Estimates voted unanimously Thursday morning to approve spending on the consent decree.

Shortly after, officials filed the agreement in the U.S. District Court for Maryland in Baltimore, alongside a civil complaint against the city by the Justice Department and a request for a public hearing.

Despite public statements of agreement about the need for police reform, city officials stated in the consent decree that they "deny the allegations" about widespread wrongdoing.

Admitting to civil rights violations could open up the city to liability in lawsuits, city officials said.

The case was assigned to Judge James K. Bredar, a former federal prosecutor and public defender in Maryland who was appointed to the bench by Obama in 2010. Bredar will oversee the process moving forward, working with a court-appointed monitor to ensure that the provisions of the agreement are met.

Under the agreement, the monitor is to be appointed for three years, and then can be reappointed. The monitor is to be paid no more than $1.475 million annually.

Other costs were not outlined, but the deal is expected to cost the city millions.

Jonathan Smith, a former chief of special litigation in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, said the agreement resembled others around the country.

But he said he was excited by the call for a community oversight task force, which he said "reflects a commitment by the city and the Department of Justice that there will be a robust role for those folks who are concerned about what's going on in their police department."

Elected leaders and civil rights activists said they were happy an agreement had been reached, but they wanted to see results.

"Citizens need to see change as we move forward," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "The community needs to see that the police will be going about things differently, because the inner city and African-American men and women have been affected by police behavior."

Chinedu Nwokeafor, a senior at Morgan State University, led protests there in the days after Gray's death.

He said much of the consent decree might seem to be common sense, but it was a lack of common sense that kept the officers who arrested and transported Gray from checking on him and calling a medic.

Some of the requirements, including those involving the transportation of detainees and chasing individuals with little evidence of wrongdoing, are clearly meant to prevent similar incidents.

"If you just look at it at a basic level, there were basic things that weren't done," said Nwokeafor, a member of the Morgan State group Strong Men Overcoming Obstacles Through Hard Work.

"At least now there's no excuse because there's a decree," he said. "Even though it may seem redundant, that's a good way for accountability."

William H. "Billy" Murphy, the attorney for Gray's family, said the agreement would lead to a "revolution" in policing in the city.

"The investigation had terrible things to say about the Baltimore City Police Department and problems of such extraordinary magnitude they cried out for immediate correction," he said. "This is the result of the cries of the community for those corrections."

Others were critical. Former Deputy Commissioner Anthony Barksdale said many of the consent decree's mandates were troubling.

He cited the requirement that officers call supervisors before making arrests on minor crimes. Amid historic violence — 2016 saw the second-most homicides in the city per capita, following only 2015 — he said police need to be aggressive.

"I believe reform is needed, but at the same time, look at the crime in the last two years in the city," he said. "We've gone back in time."

Barksdale said restricting police interactions on street corners will help drug dealers and people carrying guns illegally. He said the agreement favors loiterers over residents who call police and beg officers to clear corners where open-air drug transactions are taking place.

"They've empowered the criminal element," he said. "Yeah, it might be great for some people in the community, but what about everybody else?"

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Erin Cox and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

 

The consent decree

The city of Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice signed a consent decree that orders reforms throughout the Baltimore Police Department.

The agreement will put significant restrictions on officers as they battle a historic homicide rate, including limits on how and when they can engage criminal suspects. It will also require more training and supervision for officers.

To become binding, the agreement will have to be approved by U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar.

Once approved by the court, the agreement will be overseen by a federal monitor.

It is expected to cost the city millions of dollars.

City officials praised the agreement as a turning point in police-community relations. A former Baltimore police commander questioned whether it will make it harder to reduce crime.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
75°