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Amid its own discord, Justice Department in Baltimore to discuss police reform

Department of Justice Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the DOJ and Baltimore City has reach a consent decree agreement. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

Officials from Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice appeared in federal court Wednesday to answer questions about their recent agreement over radical reforms to the city's troubled police department.

The hearing comes amid significant confusion and an internal shakeup at the federal agency itself, where President Donald J. Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Monday and Senate Democrats delayed a vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump's nominee to fill the position, on Tuesday.

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The hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore was already delayed once after Justice Department officials asked on Jan. 20 — the day of Trump's inauguration — for "additional time in order to brief the new leadership of the Department" on the provisions of the Baltimore deal.

The hearing Wednesday started about a half-hour before the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to reconvene in Washington to vote on the Sessions nomination.

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The Justice Department declined to comment on the hearing in Baltimore.

Mayor Catherine Pugh and Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis have both said they are eager to implement reforms.

The Justice Department last summer determined the Baltimore Police Department routinely violated the constitutional rights of local residents, particularly in predominantly poor, black neighborhoods; used excessive force; mistreated protesters, youths and those with mental disabilities; and dismissed sexual assault complaints improperly, among other failings. The consent decree, filed jointly by the Justice Department and the city as a proposed settlement, calls for sweeping changes to how officers engage with individuals on the street, exercise their authority and receive training.

The Justice Department and the city reached a deal on reforms last month, after months of negotiations. The deal must be approved by the court if it is to become binding.

U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar asked both parties to come to the hearing prepared to discuss the cost of the consent decree, when and how they expect it to be implemented, what role they see the public playing in its rollout, and how it relates to the local police union's collective bargaining agreement with the city and established legal precedent on policing, among other issues.

The hearing could shine new light on how the Justice Department and the city expect to proceed with implementing the consent decree. Bredar has specifically requested they provide a timeline of key benchmarks and deadlines for progress. He also asked that Pugh personally appear in court to address the city's ability to implement the agreement — particularly given the lack of information on the ultimate cost of the reforms.

Trump's administration is seen as skeptical of federal oversight of local police departments, but law enforcement analysts expect the deal to move forward in some form.

Trump fired Yates, an Obama administration holdover, after she instructed Justice Department attorneys not to defend an executive order the president issued late last week temporarily halting the U.S. refugee program and banning arrivals from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days.

Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division that oversaw the investigation, has left the agency. Thomas Wheeler is now acting assistant attorney general for the division.

Timothy Mygatt, deputy chief of the special litigation section of the division and another Obama administration holdover, was involved in the investigation of the police department and in the crafting of the consent decree. He entered his appearance in court on Friday, signaling he is still involved in the Baltimore case.

It is not clear how long the hearing will last. A courtroom also has been reserved for the case on Thursday.

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