Justice Department to launch full-scale investigation of Baltimore police, sources say

The Baltimore Sun
Sen. Mikulski joins calls for Justice Department review of Baltimore police.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch plans to launch a full-scale civil rights investigation into use of force by Baltimore police officers, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

The decision came as local officials pressed the Department of Justice to launch an inquiry similar to investigations into police departments in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland, examining whether officers engaged in patterns of excessive force. In both of those cities, unrest erupted after unarmed people were killed by police.

Lynch visited Baltimore this week and met the family of Freddie Gray, the man who died last month of a severed spine and other injuries sustained while in police custody. Lynch said earlier this week that the Justice Department might need to go beyond a voluntary, collaborative review of use of force by city police that began in October.

"Although the city has made significant strides in their collaborative reform efforts with the Community Oriented Policing Services Office, I have not ruled out the possibility that more may need to be done," Lynch said earlier this week.

An announcement of the broader investigation is expected Friday, according to a law enforcement official who requested anonymity because the decision had not been made public.

Such civil rights probes examine whether police departments have a history of discrimination or using force beyond standard guidelines, and can lead to years of court monitoring.

The Justice Department's civil rights divisions has launched civil rights investigations into 20 police departments in the past six years. They examine excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests, and unlawful stops, searches or arrests.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski were among those urging Lynch to launch an investigation.

"In many cities throughout the country, including my own city of Baltimore, the trust between community and police is broken," Mikulski told Lynch at a Senate committee hearing Thursday. "We must do all we can to restore that trust. We need criminal justice reform undertaken with the fierce urgency of now."

Other Democratic lawmakers from Maryland sent a letter to Lynch expressing their support for a review. Sen. Ben Cardin and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, John Delaney, Donna F. Edwards, Steny Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen signed the letter.

"Such an investigation could address issues such as allegations of persistent patterns of police misconduct, use of excessive force, discriminatory policing or use of profiling, and improper stops, searches, or arrests," they wrote. "We would welcome a detailed report on the BPD along with recommendations to reform this critical agency in a timely manner."

Before receiving word that Lynch planned to proceed with an investigation, police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts welcomed calls for a more in-depth review "with open arms." He also noted that the department had made significant steps toward reducing complaints of violence against its officers.

"We have never shied away from scrutiny or assistance," Batts said in a statement. "Our work is ongoing, and anyone who wishes to be a part of helping the department better connect with the community will always be welcome."

The city is already undertaking a voluntary collaborative project with the Justice Department and until Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake had resisted calls for a higher-level "pattern or practice" review.

The collaborative review began in October after The Baltimore Sun reported that the city has paid $5.7 million in 102 court judgments and settlements for alleged police misconduct since 2011. Nearly all of the people who received payouts were cleared of criminal charges.

When Lynch visited Baltimore, she met with community leaders and officials in the aftermath of violence that shook the city after the death of Gray. The 25-year-old died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center a week after being arrested by city police. Six officers have been charged in connection with his death.

A civil rights probe into the Ferguson police department was launched after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed last August. A report released in March found police and court officials routinely violated the rights of black residents.

An investigation was launched into the Cleveland police department in March 2013 after a police chase ended in the fatal shootings of two unarmed people. It found a pattern of officers shooting at suspects who did not pose immediate threats and the use of force on suspects who had already been detained.

At Thursday's Senate hearing, Mikulski also questioned Lynch on whether federal grant money for policing could be tied to police agreeing to abide by national standards on racial bias and the use of force. She said many communities feel like the Justice Department hands over funds without trying to hold police accountable.

Lynch said the department works to train local police and pairs departments across the country so they can work together, and that it tries to use grant funding as an incentive for them to improve their practices.

Reporter Scott Dance contributed to this story.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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