Lawmakers urge city officials, Justice Department to speed up negotiations on police reform

Md. lawmakers seek answers on DOJ-Baltimore policing negotiations: 'The safety of our community is at stake'

Six Democrats in Maryland's congressional delegation called on the Obama administration and Baltimore officials to speed up their negotiations on overhauling police practices in the city, citing "growing concern from the community" about the pace of the talks.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Baltimore officials that was made public on Tuesday, the lawmakers questioned what they described as a delay in the effort to address the widespread civil rights violations by city police alleged by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Left unmentioned in the letter was the reason Democrats are concerned about timing: Many are uncertain whether President-elect Donald Trump will continue to apply pressure on the city when he moves into the White House early next year.

Since the Justice Department released its scathing report in August, city and federal officials have been negotiating a court-ordered agreement that is expected to mandate major changes to the Police Department and the way it serves the city. The status of those deliberations remains shrouded in secrecy.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, noted a sense of unease from constituents that the agreement might not be finished by Jan. 20, when Trump is to be sworn in.

"We can look back at past Republican administrations where, when it came to the…Civil Rights [Division] of [the] Justice [Department], basically they were torn apart," the Baltimore Democrat said. "If [the agreement] is not forthcoming, we want to know why and when we can expect it."

Neither city nor federal officials would commit Tuesday to finishing negotiations by the inauguration.

Members of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration said Tuesday they were surprised by the letter and insisted they were working aggressively to wrap up negotiations. Still, they declined to offer details about how close they are to announcing an agreement.

In a letter Tuesday responding to the federal lawmakers, Rawlings-Blake wrote that it is "extremely unlikely" a deal would be struck before her successor, Mayor-elect Catherine Pugh, is sworn into office on Dec. 6.

Interim City Solicitor David Ralph, a member of the city's negotiating team, said, "We've been working at a pace that's faster than of any other jurisdiction.

"We have been working collaboratively with the Department of Justice all along," he said.

Ralph pointed to negotiations in Seattle, Miami, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities that stretched out for months.

Baltimore officials said they did not yet have a complete draft of an agreement from the Justice Department, which they described as normal, given the complexity of the issues involved.

"You're talking about a major document that will have lasting consequences on the city for a substantial period of time," Ralph said.

A Justice Department spokesman confirmed that officials had received the lawmakers' letter Tuesday, but declined to comment about the status of the talks.

The letter to Lynch, Rawlings-Blake and Pugh was signed by Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, Reps. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes — all of whom represent portions of the city — as well as Senator-elect Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County.

The letter was highly unusual. Maryland's congressional delegation had stayed mum about the negotiations since they began this summer. It was not clear whether the letter was directed specifically to any of the parties involved in the talks.

But the lawmakers did point to a missed initial goal to finish the work by Nov. 1 — a goal city officials later described as "aspirational."

Asked Tuesday why they set an initial goal they could not meet, city officials said they believed they needed to have an agreement in hand by early November in order to finish the consent decree before Rawlings-Blake left office.

Ralph said the city would not set a new goal because the complexity of the negotiations made it difficult to estimate the timeline.

The lawmakers requested an update on the status of negotiations and an updated timeline for completion.

"We appreciate that it is no small task to ensure the decree fully addresses the DOJ recommendations and includes workable implementation steps," they wrote. "However, we are hearing growing concern from the community about the status of and delay in drafting the decree. We share those concerns.

"It is absolutely imperative that decisive, steady, urgent progress toward crafting a meaningful consent decree be made a top priority by all involved."

The Justice Department launched its investigation of city policing after the death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old Baltimore man suffered severe injuries in police custody.

On the day of Gray's funeral, Baltimore erupted in riots, arson and looting, bringing the city to the center of a national conversation about police practices, racism and economic disparities in urban centers.

Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department stepped up the use of court-enforced orders after findings civil rights abuses by police.

Officials initiated similar investigations under President George W. Bush, but were more likely to rely on informal agreements to address systemic problems.

Trump has offered little insight into which approach he will take.

The New York businessman cast himself as a "law and order" candidate during his campaign, and promoted more aggressive policing.

During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this year, Trump surrogates criticized Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby for bringing criminal charges against six officers involved in Gray's arrest. Mosby's effort failed, resulting in no convictions.

Trump has said he will nominate Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as his attorney general.

Neither Sessions nor officials with Trump's transition responded to a request for comment Tuesday on the Baltimore negotiations.

Pugh, who will inherit the negotiations that could define her first months in office, declined to comment through a spokesman. She has said she is not as concerned about the timing of an agreement as she is about how the city will pay for the anticipated reforms.

In that sense, she appears to be at odds with fellow Democrats in Washington.

"We appreciate the significant time and energy required to prepare for the transition of a mayoral administration, but it is absolutely necessary that the consent decree be a top priority for all at this crucial time," the lawmakers wrote. "The safety of our community is at stake."

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Justin George and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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