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Coronavirus causing some delays in Baltimore police reform efforts under consent decree, federal judge is told

The spread of COVID-19 that has caused more than 400 Baltimore Police employees to be temporarily quarantined in recent weeks has also halted some crucial training required by a federal consent decree.

The department has had to stop new training at a time when its resources are being stretched, members of the monitoring team, which is helping the department implement reforms, wrote in a recent federal court filing.

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“The upshot is that, because of the novel demands the coronavirus pandemic has placed on BPD, BPD’s resources are stretched extremely thin,” members of the monitoring team wrote in a notice filed to the court earlier this month. “Because of the extraordinary challenges the coronavirus pandemic is presenting BPD, the Monitoring Team requests that the Court approach upcoming Monitoring Plan deadlines with a measure of flexibility."

The monitoring team, which is composed of policing experts and lawyers helping the city with sweeping reforms mandated by its agreement the the Department of Justice, noted that in addition to ordinary policing duties, the department has been tasked with enforcing the governor’s stay-at-home orders and has had to cope with the loss of personnel due to illness or quarantine.

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“Certain officers are quarantined or otherwise unavailable for duty, thus depleting the number of available personnel in a Department that is already short-staffed,” the notice said.

The police department has had at least 31 employees test positive for COVID-19 and 428 quarantined due to potential exposure. So far, 360 have been cleared to return to work.

The pandemic threatens to decrease the department’s already depleted ranks. The department continues struggling to hire enough officers to outpace attrition, and remains short about 300 officers. In the first three months of the year, the department lost 74 officers and hired 57, according to recent filings to the court.

Police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said the department “continues to move forward with all possible reforms." The department has continued some training online, such as training for new recruits.

Eldridge said the department remains committed to implementing the reforms "to substantially improve our operations to better serve our communities and the residents of Baltimore.”

The five-page notice filed by the monitoring team in early April does not provide new consent decree deadlines but said it, the police department and U.S. Justice Department “will revisit and propose adjustments to specific deadlines.

The notice continues, “it would be premature and impractical to establish any new deadlines right now, as BPD’s response to the pandemic remains fluid, often requiring daily adjustments in operations and personnel.”

Among the delays is the completion of in-service training, or training for existing officers on how they handle stops, searches and arrests. The training, the monitors have said, is crucial to the department fulfilling the demands of the consent decree.

"Stops, searches and arrests [reforms] lie at the heart of the consent decree,” Seth Rosenthal, the deputy of the monitoring team, said during a recent public forum on progress implementing the changes.

The regularly scheduled meeting was held virtually over a video conferencing app.

Rosenthal said several of the core findings by the Justice Department involved how and when officers choose to stop, search, and arrest individuals. The investigation that led to the consent decree several years ago found officers routinely stopped people without a reasonable suspicion, and officers discriminated based on race.

“Because of those findings," he said, "it is an area that the police department is focused on.”

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That training began in February and completion had been expected in May. The lessons require officers to work in groups and would have violated Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive orders.

Once training is complete, the monitors are then tasked with evaluating if officers are complying.

Hassan Aden, another member of the monitoring team tasked with overseeing internal affairs reforms, said at Wednesday’s meeting that record-keeping has been a challenge for the department because of the lack of adequate technology. "The ultimate goal for the consent decrees provisions is the full, fair, and timely” handling of misconduct investigations. he said.

Training for internal affairs procedures has not yet begun. Aden said the department continues to refine policies that dictate how complaints are classified and how officers will investigate their own.

The monitoring team’s court filing highlights several efforts that will continue despite the social-distancing orders, such as developing drafts for officer performance evaluation policies, BPD-Civilian Review Board investigation coordination protocol, and Ethical Policing Is Courageous/Peer Intervention (EPIC) training curriculum. The EPIC program, which was implemented in New Orleans, trains and empowers officers to intervene in potential misconduct before it happens.

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