Baltimore leaders pledge police reform will occur with or without consent decree

Mayor Catherine Pugh and other top Baltimore officials promised Tuesday to reform the city's Police Department whether the U.S. Department of Justice pursues its pending consent decree with the city or not.

"I'm asking the citizens to have faith that we will continue this work," Pugh said. "We do want to transform our Police Department."

"Those reforms are going to take place no matter what," said Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. "We have to continue to stress the necessity of constitutional policing in Baltimore."

They and police experts also acknowledged, however, that reform will be more difficult, and take longer to implement, if the Justice Department leaves the table.

"They hold our feet to the fire," Davis said.

"Having a judicially enforced consent decree adds a real force, because to violate it is to be in contempt of court," said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has studied police reform.

The comments came a day after the Justice Department raised doubts about the consent decree's future when it filed a motion Monday in U.S. District Court seeking a 90-day pause in the federal court case in which the proposed reform agreement is pending.

The motion argued that top officials in the new Trump administration needed more time to review the proposed deal, which was struck in the waning days of the Obama administration.

The review reflects the Trump administration's emphasis on bolstering law and order over investigating allegations of police misconduct, and some worry that it could lead to changes or even abandonment of the negotiated consent decree in Baltimore.

In addition to their public comments, city officials filed a motion of their own opposing any delay in the case.

The White House referred questions about the pause to the Justice Department, which sought to play down the review, saying it was normal for a new administration to examine policies and procedures inherited from a previous president.

Sessions and his team are "actively developing strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public," Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement.

The department's motion cited President Donald Trump's executive order in February calling on the department "to prioritize crime reduction" and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' formation of a task force to ensure that the agency is using its resources to push that agenda. It said the department "determined that permitting it more time to examine the consent decree proposed in this case in light of these initiatives will help ensure that the best result is achieved for the people of the City."

Along with the motion, the Justice Department filed a recent Sessions memo directing his top deputies to review all such deals nationwide.

The Justice Department's motion asked that the court grant the 90-day pause ahead of the next hearing in the case, which is scheduled Thursday before Judge James K. Bredar.

Many stakeholders in Baltimore, including civil rights organizations and local residents, saw the move as a clear sign the Justice Department intends to back out of the reform process in Baltimore.

The pledges by Pugh and Davis that the city would see to it that reform occurs no matter what were in part a response to those concerns.

"I want to say to the community in particular that the Police Department is absolutely dedicated to the consent decree process. There's no backroom deals. There's no sleight of hand," Davis said. "It'll make us better, it'll make the city better, it'll make our relationships with the community better."

The consent decree was negotiated after the Justice Department under former President Barack Obama conducted a sweeping investigation of the Baltimore Police Department following the 2015 unrest after Freddie Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody. The agency said it found a pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the city, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

The report found that police engaged in unconstitutional stops and searches and mistreated a range of people from protesters to those with disabilities and youths. It found that the department mishandled sexual assault cases and that officers were poorly trained and supervised.

The consent decree, if approved by Judge Bredar, would be a binding agreement mandating the Police Department to implement sweeping reforms to address the discriminatory and unconstitutional practices identified. A federal monitor would be appointed to oversee the process, reporting directly to Bredar.

City officials, who invited the Justice Department into the city, have agreed that reform is needed and have been planning for the associated costs.

In her first budget as mayor, Pugh included $10 million to pay for the first year of the consent decree reforms. That includes $5 million for increased training and compliance costs, $4.4 million on new technology and nearly $1.5 million for monitoring the reforms.

Police expect to spend at least $7.5 million a year for five years to comply with the consent decree. While pledging to carry out the consent decree reforms, Pugh acknowledged that the city was incurring large costs on an already tight budget.

"What we've got set aside so far is not nearly enough," she said. "What we have set aside is enough money to get this moving."

Gov. Larry Hogan has committed $2 million to help pay for the first year of the consent decree, an allocation Pugh said she hopes will be repeated in coming years.

Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said the governor is "fully supportive of Baltimore City leadership and their ongoing efforts to move forward with reforms," citing the $2 million allocation.

Five members of Maryland's congressional delegation who represent Baltimore — Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen as well as Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, all Democrats — called on the Justice Department to withdraw its motion in a letter Tuesday.

"We are gravely concerned that the Justice Department will retreat from its obligation to protect the federal civil rights of the citizens of Baltimore," the letter reads. "We owe it to the dedicated professional law enforcement officers of the [Baltimore Police Department] to bring this matter to a just, prompt conclusion."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said city lawmakers will work to make sure reforms go forward.

"We as a city of Baltimore are committed to seeing this through," he said.

City officials' avowed commitment to police reform marked a unique moment in policing history, experts said. It is more common for cities to either balk at federally mandated reforms or welcome the outside scrutiny from an equally invested Justice Department, experts said.

"The part that is unique is the DOJ saying, 'Ehhh, maybe not,'" said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies policing.

"What does a police department and a city administration do if they want to go ahead with this, but the Justice Department looks like it's going to say in 90 days, 'You know what? Nevermind,'" Harris said. "Well, they are going to have a tougher time."

Harris and other experts said consent decrees give political leaders cover from criticism, particularly as it relates to spending on police, allowing them to say the costs associated with mandated reforms are unavoidable under the federal oversight process. Consent decrees also assure reforms take root in a city across multiple city administrations, they said.

"When you have a really troubled department, a voluntary effort doesn't do it. You really need the specifics and the power of an enforceable consent decree," Walker said.

"It's not going to be as easy" without the Justice Department's buy in, Harris said. "Anything they want to accomplish, they are going to have to accomplish with their own political will, pushing or pulling on resources. And as we know in cities like Baltimore, resources are not just lying around."

Davis said the Justice Department made its request "without a whole lot of justification," and urged it to change its tune.

"I don't hear any particulars associated with the need to get a 90-day extension," Davis said. "The challenges in our city are documented, they're detailed in the report. If we want to sit down around a table and have a discussion before we break the huddle and start the consent decree, I'm not opposed to that. But I think requesting a 90-day extension was unnecessary."

The Baltimore Sun's John Fritze and Erin Cox and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
79°