Justice Department asks court for 90-day pause to 'review and assess' Baltimore police consent decree

The U.S. Department of Justice is asking a federal judge for a 90-day pause to further "review and assess" its proposed police reform consent decree with Baltimore.

Supporters of the deal expressed concern the move could suggest the Trump administration has changed its mind about backing the agreement, which was signed in the waning days of Barack Obama's presidency.

"We know that reform is not important to this president or his attorney general," said City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the public safety committee.

In a motion filed Monday night in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the Justice Department cited President Donald J. Trump's executive order Feb. 9 directing the government "to prioritize crime reduction" and a task force created to address that directive by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"The Attorney General and the new leadership in the Department are actively developing strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public," attorneys for the department wrote.

"The Department has 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."

The motion was filed along with a recent memorandum in which Sessions called on his top deputies to conduct a sweeping review of all the agency's activities, including other consent decree agreements across the country.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said she and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis "strongly oppose" such a pause.

"Any interruption in moving forward may have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish," Pugh said.

A spokesman for Davis said, "This is a decision made solely by the DOJ, and we oppose the decision."

Judge James K. Bredar has yet to rule on the motion. A hearing has for weeks been scheduled for Thursday for members of the public to provide input on the proposed deal.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the local police union, said he hopes the pause, if granted, is used to "find out what's really going on" with policing in Baltimore — which he said will only happen if the union is consulted more than it was before the decree was reached.

"I want to meet with Donald Trump," Ryan said. "I want to tell him what's really going on."

The consent decree agreement was reached between the Justice Department and Baltimore after the federal agency investigated the city Police Department and determined that it engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.

Investigators found that city police officers routinely violated the constitutional rights of local residents, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. Officers used excessive force and mistreated youths, those with mental disabilities, protesters and sexual assault victims, the agency found.

The consent decree calls for a wide range of reforms to the Police Department. If approved by Bredar, it would be binding — likely costing the city millions of dollars to implement.

Both Trump and Sessions have expressed skepticism of such agreements. And, after Trump's election, the Justice Department was granted a brief delay in the Baltimore case so career attorneys in the agency could brief the incoming administration.

But at a hearing in February, the Justice Department said it was fully committed to moving forward with the deal.

Monday's request for a delay is a sign that commitment may not be there after all, said Jonathan Smith, a former chief of special litigation in the Justice Department's civil rights division under Obama.

"This is really, really troubling," Smith said. "The Department of Justice went in front of this judge, said 'We are committed to the consent decree, we're going to move forward with the consent decree, we think this is the right thing to do,' and now they're changing course."

Bredar had made a point of asking if the Police Department was committed to the deal, likely because he wanted to avoid just this scenario, Smith said.

"To come back now and say 'We've changed our mind' is an insult to the court," Smith said, "and a tremendous insult to the people of Baltimore."

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the motion was "very disappointing."

She said during a meeting with Sessions in March, she brought up the Baltimore consent decree, told him it was necessary and asked him to keep an open mind — but he was "noncommittal" about pursuing the reforms.

Under Trump, Baltimore no longer has what it had under the Obama administration, which was an administration "committed to rooting out unconstitutional policing and working with the city and on behalf of the city's residents," she said.

The Justice Department, in its motion, said it remained "committed to working to ensure that the BPD can carry out its mission of fostering trust with community members, safeguarding life and property, and promoting public safety through enforcing the law in a fair and impartial manner."

Ray Kelly, a community organizer with the No Boundaries Coalition, said he was optimistic Bredar would deny the motion, recognizing that the community, city officials and the Justice Department officials who spent time investigating all agree that reform is necessary.

He said he understood the motion to mean that Sessions is second-guessing the need for reform, a stance he called "a slap in the face to anyone that is suffering the effects of unconstitutional practices by police" in Baltimore.

"What does that do for hope in our community after what we have been through the past few years?" he asked.

Along with the motion, the Justice Department filed a memorandum from Sessions to top agency officials in which he called for a top-to-bottom review of all agency activities to make sure they adhere to eight specific law enforcement policy statements by the administration.

Among them: "Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies."

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, who has been nominated to become Sessions' deputy attorney general, declined to comment Monday.

krector@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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