On Thursday, nearly 50 individuals — high school students, mothers whose children were killed by police officers, advocates for individuals who have been sexually abused, advocates who work with disabled individuals, senior citizens, faith-based leaders and others — testified at a Public Fairness Hearing held before U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar in Baltimore.
They were there to advocate and agitate for the long overdue cultural transformation of the Baltimore Police Department, which is necessary for all officers to serve and protect the city with respect, dignity and understanding. They did this specifically by expressing their thoughts and feelings about a proposed consent decree that was filed jointly in January by the U.S. Department of Justice, the City of Baltimore and the Baltimore police department.
And though Judge Bredar ultimately approved the consent decree today, formalizing an oversight relationship between the DOJ and city officials, the work of the people is not yet done. They must continue their vigilance, particularly now that the Justice Department, under President Donald Trump, has signaled its reluctance to do its part.
Days before the hearing, DOJ attorneys filed a last-minute motion seeking to "pause" the process for at least three months so that it could "assess whether and how the provisions of the proposed consent decree interact with the directives" of the new president and his attorney general. Judge Bredar denied the request, and DOJ lawyers later doubled down at the hearing, saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions has "grave concerns" about the decree.
These words and actions make clear the current DOJ's infidelity to a process that is geared toward transforming unconstitutional policing in Baltimore and several other communities throughout the U.S. — a process the prior administration deemed absolutely vital to the future of policing and public safety. These moves are a stark reminder that the current administration's perspectives on policing and criminal justice are antagonistic to the lived realities of those who have borne the brunt of a policing culture that devalues their humanity as suspects, victims and as individuals who have every right to be left alone. These perspectives prioritize ideology over justice and make communities less safe. As a result, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. has filed a motion to intervene in this matter. In doing so, LDF is compensating for the DOJ's reluctance to assert the rights of Baltimore's residents.
The DOJ's request for a "comprehensive review and assessment" of the proposed decree sought to undercut the central role that Baltimore's residents play in this process. The advocacy of countless individuals and organizations — community-based and grassroots organizations, legal services organizations and men, women and children whose lives have been shaped, altered and oppressed by all types of encounters with the BPD — is what brought the DOJ, under President Barack Obama, to Baltimore to investigate the BPD in the first place.
These same organizations and individuals played an active role in the DOJ's investigation. They convened meetings and focus groups. They gathered data and issued reports. They educated the DOJ about life in Baltimore. Likewise, they listened and learned about the potential benefits and limitations of this investigative process. The DOJ's investigative findings captured some of these lessons and missed others, culminating in a report that detailed and amplified some of the horrors of the hyper-aggressive and unconstitutional policing that has long criminalized black residents and black communities throughout the city.
Feelings about the consent decree and the process moving forward run the gamut — hope, skepticism, optimism, distrust, anger, resignation and sadness, to name a few. Those who support the decree recognize that it is not a cure and that additional measures and structures outside the decree will be necessary to bring about and sustain positive, transformative relationships between the BPD and the communities it serves. Many who disfavor the decree do not trust that this process will lead to the necessary cultural transformation of the BPD.
Regardless of these differences, this decree belongs to Baltimore, and residents must have a central role in moving it forward. The entirety of the decree — its goals, ideals and shortcomings — will be accountable to them. The goal here is to transform the BPD into a department that all of Baltimore's residents want, need and deserve. This is the very least that we can do collectively for the countless individuals, families and communities who have lived these experiences and carried these burdens for too long. The stakes, for tomorrow and for the generations that follow, cannot be any higher.
Michael Pinard is the Francis & Harriet Iglehart Professor of Law and co-director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ProfMPinard.