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Judge defends Baltimore police reforms from critics who say they have hurt crime fight: ‘We’re not going back’

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, pictured with City Solicitor Andre Davis, said Wednesday that he understands the challenge he faces trying to get rank and file officers to support changes brought on by a federal consent decree. His remarks followed a hearing at which U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar said there is no choice.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, pictured with City Solicitor Andre Davis, said Wednesday that he understands the challenge he faces trying to get rank and file officers to support changes brought on by a federal consent decree. His remarks followed a hearing at which U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar said there is no choice. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The judge enforcing the Baltimore Police consent decree pushed back Wednesday against recent criticism of the federally mandated reforms, saying it is imperative for officers to “lean in” to the process as training increases in the coming year.

U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar said the decree requires officers to engage in constitutional policing and does not direct officers “to pull back" on crime.

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“The task in 2020, under this consent decree and in the midst of this crime wave, is to embrace modern, best practices of policing, respect the Constitution, then lean in, using all appropriate police powers, investigative strategies, apprehension techniques, community engagement and trust-building methods to help secure this city,” he said.

More directly, Bredar said, “We’re not going back as long as I’m in charge of it.”

The city and the Justice Department entered into the consent decree in 2017 after a federal investgation in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody found that officers in Baltimore engaged in widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing.

The comments come after Baltimore closed one of its deadliest years on record, with 348 people killed and twice as many injured in shootings. The high rate of violence continued into this year with the city averaging almost a homicide per day.

Some critics, such as the police officers’ union leadership, blame continued violence on the policy changes they say hinder the ability of officers to to fight crime.

U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar told Baltimore police officials Wednesday that the department will be better for embracing changes mandated under a federal consent decree.
U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar told Baltimore police officials Wednesday that the department will be better for embracing changes mandated under a federal consent decree. (HANDOUT)

Bredar said other major U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Cleveland, have undergone similar consent decrees and reduced crime. Police departments that embrace reforms earn the trust of their communities, he said.

Bredar referenced a recent viral video of a city police officer being kicked as he attempted to make an arrest on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, arguing that a reformed department would have more positive interactions with the community.

Bredar said a community that trusts its police force doesn’t “stand by and tolerate the kicking of a police officer who is on the ground trying to make a lawful arrest. Instead, they assist that officer, and they readily report on those others who help the resister.”

He added that the department will face an ongoing challenge trying to encourage mid-level leadership to accept “values and conviction” that have been adopted by command.

“My fear," he said, “is that we have not persuaded the critical men and women who actually make this department function.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon that getting officers to support changes is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

“It is always a hard sell,” said Harrison, who previously led the New Orleans Police Department while it was under a consent decree. “I’ve been a part of where it was done and it was as challenging, if not more challenging than what we are facing right now.”

He said he’s meeting regularly with officers, going to roll call, and training sessions “to make sure they see what is actually happening, not what they are being told.”

Harrison said its also important "to make sure [officers] feel confident and competent in doing their jobs, making sure they know we support them in doing the work that they doing. They are putting their lives on the line every single day and sometimes it’s a thankless job.”

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