Amid calls nationwide to ”defund the police,” the federal judge overseeing the Baltimore Police consent decree said Thursday that “such reform options may exist in other cities, but not here.”
U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar doubled down on his support for the city to continue with its years-long reform efforts, which require increased funding and hiring more police officers, despite the recent push to shift police funding to other areas or restructure policing to incorporate more social services.
Bredar said Baltimore leaders in 2017 chose the path of the federally enforced decree, and the city has a legal obligation to complete those reforms. Baltimore entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department after a DOJ investigation found Baltimore police officers routinely violated residents’ civil rights. The investigation was prompted by the arrest and death of Freddie Gray in 2015, whose death sparked unrest and calls for police reform in Baltimore.
“A specific path has already been chosen here,” Bredar said. “The court will require that the city travel down that path until it reaches the destination of ‘substantial compliance.' Until the city comes into compliance, the decree will be the template for how police reform is accomplished here.”
Bredar said later in the hearing that he appreciates the wider public pressure brought by the defunding police movement. He highlighted the progress that has begun under Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and his team since they arrived in Baltimore last year, while acknowledging recent obstacles including the coronavirus pandemic, which has delayed training on reformed policies and diverted police resources.
“It would be a mistake to go backwards when we are trying to move forwards,” he said.
Debate over the “defund the police” movement recently dominated budget discussions at Baltimore City Hall. The City Council voted to eliminate roughly $22 million in police spending for the upcoming fiscal year, though it kept the department’s large budget mostly intact. Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee for mayor, said at the time that it was a symbol of what’s to come.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, however, stood by his original budget, arguing the department needs resources in order to work toward reform. His spokesman on Thursday said Young stands by that belief, in light of the judge’s comments.
”The city is committed to the consent decree, and that’s going to be a costly process,” Lester Davis said. Once reforms are in place “then it may be the appropriate time to have a conversation about funding levels.”
Scott said that if elected in November, as is expected in deep-blue Baltimore, his administration would commit to both the path laid out in the consent decree and the idea of reimagining public safety and the police budget.
“Those things can happen simultaneously,” Scott said, adding that attempts to reduce the budget must be done responsibly and over a period of time.
Thursday’s consent decree hearing was the first since the start of the pandemic. It was held virtually over Zoom, though Bredar and several city leaders, including Harrison, attended in person, wearing face masks and sitting at trial tables behind newly installed clear shields. Occasionally, the virtual hearing was interrupted by callers who took over the microphones before they were disconnected from the meeting by courtroom staff.
The pandemic has “presented considerable challenges,” said U.S. Justice Department lawyer Cynthia Coe, “but the parties are continuing to work collaboratively.”
Among the delays has been in-service training to get officers up to speed on new policies, even though the department has continued to train new officers through virtual means. Just after the police academy reopened it closed again this week; several trainees and two instructors had tested positive for COVID-19.
Much of Thursday’s day-long discussion focused on the need to address how officers respond to people experiencing mental health crises. Advocates say more funding should be prioritized for community resources over police.
In opening remarks, Bredar mentioned the incident earlier this month in which officers shot Ricky Walker Jr., who was experiencing a behavioral crisis, in Northeast Baltimore.
Bredar said that while the officers were patient with Walker, the shooting is an example of how mental health-related incidents should not fall exclusively to police officers.
Officers will continue to be called when an individual poses a “grave danger” that requires force, he said. But Walker’s case demonstrates the gaps in the system that must be addressed.
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who represents Northeast Baltimore and has advocated for shifting police funding, commented later, “It takes money and resources to have those alternative and supporting systems in place.”
He said the larger conversation around funding is necessary. Consent decrees “can lead to certain reforms but still not address the degree to which we are misguided to rely on conventional policing as a means to public safety,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Disability Rights Maryland, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law issued a letter Wednesday calling for expedited reforms on how police respond to such incidents in response to Walker’s shooting.
“Mr. Walker’s shooting is yet another example of multiple failures in Baltimore’s public health and safety systems,” the joint letter said. “The [Baltimore Police department] is all too often Baltimore City’s de facto behavioral health crisis response service. This is inappropriate and must stop.”
They blamed the inability of the city’s behavioral health system to “engage individuals like Mr. Walker in supportive community-based services and failure to provide ’24/7′ crisis response services.”
During the hearing, Alexandra Shandell, a Justice Department lawyer, said the city should keep working toward a response protocol for people in behavioral crises. Other cities have protocols outlining when to send police, mental health professionals or both, she said.
“We believe this work can be happening now, and many of the goals can be happening in the near future,” Shandell said.
The hearing also touched on the police department’s response to protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Nationwide demonstrations included more than a week of large marches and gatherings last month in Baltimore.
Seth Rosenthal, a member of the monitoring team assisting the department on reforms, said team members were at the department’s command center and on the street during protests.
“Generally what we saw was very positive,” he said. Officers on the ground and leaders in the command center were able to reduce threats — such as a man carrying a long gun in the crowd — while allowing protests to continue, he said.
Additionally, Rosenthal said, officers did not engage in “provocative actions” such as needless arrests or overuse of riot gear. He said the department made only 21 arrests.
“It appears to have been a much better-run operation,” compared with the department’s response to the 2015 unrest, Bredar said. “I take all of it as a measure of progress. The evidence is there. Baltimore didn’t burn. A lot of cities did.”
The parties discussed improvements in recruiting, though hiring still lags behind attrition. Bredar has stressed the need to increase hiring in order to meet the decree’s demands.
Harrison’s chief of staff, Eric Melancon, said Thursday the department has a “strong opportunity” to surpass last year’s hiring rate. Applications have more than doubled, which he attributed partially to a new marketing campaign.
Attrition, however, remains an issue, he said, adding that many of the officers who have left this year had reached the 25 years’ service needed for full retirement.
Justice Department Attorney Steven Ryals said “sufficient staffing” is necessary for investigating misconduct and patrolling streets without forcing officers to work overtime.