Court is told of progress — and obstacles — as Baltimore implements police consent decree

Baltimore has made incremental progress reforming its police department under its year-old consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, but is still far from where it needs to be and faces significant technological hurdles in getting there, city officials and their federal overseers agreed Friday at the first public court hearing since the deal was inked last spring.

“Every spot along the way, we’re bumping against problems with technology,” said U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who ordered the reform package after the Justice Department investigated Baltimore, found a pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing, and sued the city to force improvements.

“We have really just begun and we are in the very, very early stages of this consent decree,” said Puneet Cheema, a trial attorney in the Justice Department’s special litigation section.

The hearing was the first time officials from the city, Justice Department and the independent monitor team have spoken in a public setting about their work over the past year. It was also the first opportunity for Bredar to address the city’s performance to date in revamping its police department in the wake of scandals. They include not just the death of Freddie Gray and the scathing Justice Department report that prompted the consent decree, but also the more-recent Gun Trace Task Force corruption case.

Bredar compared the department to a dilapidated home that does not need a “coat of paint” but a top-to-bottom overhaul and a new foundation. And he said he worried its lack of technology — including a modern computer network capable of tracking, collecting and parsing data from a multitude of units in real time — was making that overhaul impossible.

“Does the police department, does the city, have the capability to pull this off?” he asked of the reform deal.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said “getting the house in order so that the house operates effectively and efficiently is our No. 1 priority.” City Solicitor Andre Davis said the city is preparing to spend up to $500,000 to hire a consultant who can help build exactly the sort of modern computer platform for the police department that Bredar envisioned.

Bredar said he is confident city leaders want change, but remains concerned about their capacity to bring about the full scope of reforms required.

He said it can be difficult to understand the full consent decree and the best path forward, as “everything in it seems to be a priority, and there’s this challenge of how to move forward on all fronts simultaneously.” But in broad terms, the deal is “about integrity, it’s about staffing and resources, it’s about technology,” he said — and the city would be wise to focus on those areas.”

The hearing Friday morning in Baltimore’s downtown federal courthouse was scheduled to provide specific updates to the judge — and the public — on progress by the department in a number of key areas for reform, including the transportation of detainees, misconduct investigations and officer discipline, and the use of force by officers.

Problems in all three areas were raised after the arrest and death of the 25-year-old Gray in April 2015 and the subsequent, unsuccessful prosecutions of several officers involved. Gray’s case, and the rioting that followed his death, spurred the city to invite the Justice Department to investigate the police department.

The Justice Department issued a scathing report in August 2016 in which investigators determined the Baltimore police engaged in widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. It also found officers violated people’s rights during stops, searches and seizures; lacked adequate training; and interacted poorly with minorities, youths, people with mental illness and others.

The consent decree was negotiated by the parties for months, and then was entered as an order of the court by Bredar in April 2017.

The court-enforced agreement mandates the department take steps to tackle racial bias in its ranks, and restricts how officers can interact with individuals on the street, including in stops and searches. It orders increased supervision of officers, enhanced civilian oversight of the department, more training in de-escalation tactics, and more transparency. It also requires new investments in technology and equipment.

During Friday’s hearing, several city officials shared their thoughts about where the city was in its fight for reforms. Then city attorneys walked Bredar through steps the city has taken in the last year toward compliance. Justice Department officials then discussed their perception of those steps, and the monitoring team did as well.

Kenneth Thompson, the chief monitor, agreed the city is “a long, long way” from compliance with the mandates of the deal. But he said it is making progress.

City officials discussed upgrades to transportation vans for detainees, work to improve the city’s use-of-force policies for officers, the introduction of more than 2,000 body cameras for officers, the creation of new programs for training officers to respond to individuals with behavioral health issues, and a restructuring of the process for how citizens can file complaints against officers.

Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa appeared at the beginning of the hearing to express his support for the consent decree. He also apologized for the actions of the Gun Trace Task Force — a team of police detectives indicted and convicted in the last year on charges of robbing residents, stealing and reselling guns and drugs on the streets, filing false court paperwork and making fraudulent overtime claims.

“The GTTF and rogue cops set our police department back 30, 40, 50 years,” De Sousa said.

“I agree with that,” Bredar said.

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krector@baltsun.com

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