Consent decree reforms progressing despite leadership shake-up, Baltimore Police officials say

Despite back-to-back command shake-ups in the last four months, the Baltimore Police Department is holding to a reform schedule set forward under its consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, police officials said Monday.

“We’re still moving ahead,” said Chief Michelle Wirzberger, who heads the department’s consent decree compliance office. “There’s been no change. There’s been no delay. There’s been no let-up whatsoever in terms of our work.”

Wirzberger’s comments follow the resignation of Commissioner Darryl De Sousa last week; he faces federal charges of failing to file tax returns three years in a row.

De Sousa had only been leading the department since January, when Mayor Catherine E. Pugh fired his predecessor, Kevin Davis, amid high levels of violence.

Pugh’s elevation of Deputy Commissioner Gary Tuggle to interim commissioner makes Tuggle the third person to lead the department since the year-old decree was signed. And there’s a national search underway for De Sousa’s permanent replacement.

Ken Thompson, the independent monitor charged with overseeing and ensuring city compliance with the consent decree, did not respond to a request for comment on De Sousa’s departure.

Jonathan Smith, a former chief of special litigation in the Justice Department's civil rights division who helped oversee police consent decrees under the Obama administration, said De Sousa’s resignation — just a few months after Davis and several of his top commanders overseeing the consent decree left — would frustrate U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar and other officials engaged in the reform process.

“It’s the kind of thing that the community really needs to see that the department is serious about moving forward, and has stable leadership at the top to do it,” Smith said. “And this was a blow.”

However, Wirzberger said things have moved forward well.

After the federal tax charges were announced against De Sousa, and he was suspended by the mayor the next day, Wirzberger said she told her team to stay focused — just as they did when Davis was fired in January.

“I told my team, ‘Just keep your head down and keep moving forward. The politics does not matter to us. It doesn’t matter to Judge Bredar,’ ” Wirzberger said. “He’s concerned with if we are continuing to move the ball forward.”

Wirzberger said she met with Tuggle the day De Sousa was suspended, on Friday, May 11, and that she and Tuggle met with Justice officials and the independent monitoring team that Monday.

“They just wanted to feel him out, make sure he understood the consent decree and was committed to it,” she said of the discussion.

Wirzberger said it helped that Tuggle already was overseeing areas that the consent decree specifically touches on — including training, recruitment and professional responsibility — and was well aware of some of the reform efforts and policy revisions that were underway.

“He understands how we need to be intentional in our efforts, and we have to be forthright, and he’s very supportive of our efforts,” Wirzberger said of the interim commissioner. “Bottom line is, he gets it. I don’t have to sell him on why we’re doing this.”

Wirzberger said the fact that Baltimore’s consent decree required a first-year plan to be put forward by Thompson’s office — and that an aggressive plan is in place — also has helped keep the department on track amid the command changes.

“Our first-year plan is incredibly aggressive and does not allow for much wiggle room, quite frankly,” she said. “We have multiple deadlines each week.”

T.J. Smith, the police department’s chief spokesman, said one of the key strengths of consent decrees is that they outlast political administrations and police chiefs.

“One of the purposes that the consent decree serves is to bust right through all of that political mess that agencies like this have to deal with,” Smith said. “And we are out in the community relaying the message to the public that this transcends politics, to ease those fears.”

krector@baltsun.com

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