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Baltimore mayor seeks federal investigation of police department

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asks for DOJ probe, promises body cameras.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the Justice Department on Wednesday to conduct a full-scale civil rights investigation into the pattern and practices of the Baltimore Police Department — a probe that would examine excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests, and unlawful stops, searches or arrests.

"We all know that Baltimore continues to have a fractured relationship between the police and the community," Rawlings-Blake said. "I'm willing to do what it takes to reform my department."

The Justice Department already is conducting a "collaborative review" with Baltimore police, but its recommendations will not carry the weight of law. Such reviews differ from full-scale civil rights investigations because they are launched by agreement with local officials and are not enforced by court order.

A Justice Department spokesperson said the agency had received the mayor's request. Spokeswoman Dena Iverson said Attorney General Loretta Lynch "is actively considering that option in light of what she heard from law enforcement, city officials and community, faith and youth leaders in Baltimore."

The mayor's call came a day after City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and 10 members of the City Council asked Lynch for a full-scale investigation. All are Democrats.

"The systemic mistreatment of members of the African-American community by some officers within the Baltimore Police Department helped contribute to a strained relationship between the police and the citizens who depend on them for protection and service," the council members wrote in a letter Tuesday.

"The City of Baltimore is in desperate need of a binding federal review of the police department in order to repair this fractured relationship."

Young has called for a full-scale civil rights investigation for months, and some community activists have asked for such an intervention for years.

In the kind of inquiry Rawlings-Blake and the council are seeking, the Justice Department's civil rights division examines whether officers have a history of discrimination or of using force beyond standard guidelines. Such investigations can lead to consent decrees and years of court monitoring.

The division has launched investigations into 20 police departments in the past six years, in cities that include Cleveland and New Orleans.

It can take the division 18 to 24 months to complete an investigation. The consent decree and associated negotiations for reform can take many more months after that.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor, said city officials are not sure how much such a probe would cost. He noted that collaborative reviews are paid for by the federal government, but it is unclear whether federal officials would cover all the costs of a civil rights investigation.

"It's premature to say," Harris said. "Until you know the depth of the review, it's impossible to say how much it will cost and who will pay for it."

Rawlings-Blake did not join earlier calls for a civil rights investigation. Instead, she asked the federal government to enter into a collaborative oversight agreement with the Police Department.

Rawlings-Blake brought Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to Baltimore in 2012 in the hope of improving relations between the Police Department and the community.

Batts disbanded a tough-on-crime unit called the Violent Crimes Impact Section, the source of many citizen complaints. And the mayor released a plan titled "Preventing Harm" last year that included recommendations aimed at curbing police misconduct.

The mayor also has pledged to equip officers with body cameras by the end of the year.

Rawlings-Blake has repeatedly pointed out that complaints of excessive force and lawsuits against the police have declined during her tenure.

"We have seen results from these efforts," she said.

But the department has been thrust into the national spotlight by the death of Freddie Gray, 25, who died last month after suffering a severe spinal cord injury and a crushed voicebox while in police custody. Six officers face criminal charges in the case.

Lynch visited Baltimore on Tuesday, met with city officials, community leaders and Gray's family, and pledged to improve the Police Department. The FBI and the Justice Department are investigating the death of Gray for potential civil rights violations.

The Baltimore police union said its officers welcome the investigation.

"We agree with the mayor on her invitation to the DOJ and welcome their investigation fully as we, too, have issues with many of the current policies and procedures of the department," said Kim Deachilla, a spokeswoman for the group. "It is our intent to fully cooperate with any investigation that has the potential to correct departmental deficiencies and improve the morale of our members."

Gov. Larry Hogan said an enhanced Justice Department review is "probably a step in the right direction."

And Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he "strongly supports" a full-scale investigation into the Police Department.

"We must know whether there is a pattern or practice by the department that systemically violates people's rights," Cummings said in a statement. "Mr. Gray's death is only the most recent case underscoring the need to examine our Police Department from top to bottom."

A Baltimore Sun investigation last year revealed that the city had paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct since 2011. Nearly all of the people involved in the confrontations that led to those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Erin Cox and Mark Puente contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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