Police consent decree will bring closer scrutiny than past reform efforts

Baltimore has seen police reform plans before — but nothing like the scrutiny that a new court-ordered monitor will bring.

If the consent decree negotiated by the city and the Justice Department is approved by U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, a team of attorneys, police veterans and tech-savvy professionals will flood police headquarters and district stations to keep close tabs on how the agency is complying with its pledge to eliminate racially biased policing and excessive force.


"It is an invasive process," said Baltimore attorney Chad Curlett, who served on a monitoring team in Detroit. "You'll have people on the ground, out with clipboards at the districts and inspecting the equipment and talking to people."

Unlike past plans that were subject to the whims of police leadership or City Hall, former Baltimore police commander Timothy Longo said, oversight now "wears a black robe and has a lifetime appointment."

Top city officials unanimously approved spending city funding on police reforms agreed to under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. They did so without releasing the agreement, and without specifying how much money would be spent.

Despite a long history of friction between police and residents, Baltimore had avoided the court-mandated federal oversight that has been imposed on Prince George's County, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Newark, Seattle and even the U.S. Virgin Islands. The experiences of those jurisdictions offer a guide to what Baltimore can expect — and how it might navigate the process most smoothly.

University of Nebraska historian Samuel Walker, who has studied police consent decrees, said Baltimore has already implemented more of the recommended reforms than other cities in a similar position.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake invited the Justice Department to review the department in 2014, days after The Baltimore Sun reported that the city had paid millions of dollars to settle more than 100 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.

The federal agency expanded that review into a full-scale civil rights investigation after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.


Federal officials praised police for working closely with them during the investigation.

"Unlike any of the other consent decrees, Baltimore has a head start," Walker said. "They can build on that. The monitor can provide assistance and encouragement, but it doesn't have to teach them the ABCs."

It will likely be months before a monitor is picked. But when the team is on board, it will be costly: the city has made an initial three-year commitment, with the price for the monitor alone capped at $1.47 million annually.

That's before expenses to pay for the actual upgrades mandated in the consent decree, which city officials have estimated to be in the tens of millions. Bredar, the judge, will decide when the decree can be lifted.

Jonathan Smith, a former chief of special litigation in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, said the monitor is "critically important" to the implementation of any consent decree.

"You need somebody who has the ability to do more than just measure the implementation," he said. "It's not just somebody who goes in with a checklist and says you're supposed to do this in 90 days, this in 45 days, and you did or did not do it."

Ganesha Martin, the chief of the Police Department's DOJ compliance division, said the city wants "a constant flow of information from the department to the community: 'This is what we're doing. This is how we want to do it. What do you think? How are you feeling?'

"I do not want it to be a consent decree from up on high," she said.

Smith said the most successful monitors are transparent with the local community, create ways to engage and receive feedback, and make their findings easily accessible. They work not only with activists, he said, but also with business and faith communities, and with officers and their families.

In Seattle, city officials fought the consent decree before reaching an agreement; then rank-and-file police officers pushed back, challenging the order in court.

In its first report, the monitoring team cited infighting among command staff and said officers remained "dug in and continue to resist the force and implications of the settlement agreement."

"Other law enforcement agencies subject to similar consent decrees have floundered or wasted time fighting the inevitable," the team wrote. "We strongly do not wish this to happen here."

The senior management of the police force was eventually reorganized, and a new mayor was elected in 2014. Seattle has since been praised for its progress.

New Orleans, like Baltimore, invited the federal review — following Hurricane Katrina — and then reached an accord with the Justice Department. But the city soon began to have second thoughts, and asked a judge to vacate the order, with arguments that the reforms were already in place and the costs were soaring.

A federal appeals court denied the request.

Justice Department officials say the consent decree is designed to withstand changes in perspective, both at the local level and in Washington, where President-elect Donald Trump's Justice Department could take a different view on consent decrees than the Obama administration.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch describes the sweeping Baltimore police reform document she signed Thursday as a "legally biding" deal that will survive a Trump administration. Others aren't so sure.

"This agreement is binding and will live on," Attorney General Loretta Lynch asserted last week.

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has been outspoken in his belief that federal oversight when he was chief in Oakland, Calif., kept that city's Police Department from making its own progress, and incurred unnecessary costs.

Batts came to Baltimore in 2012 keen on implementing reforms that would stave off such federal intervention. He hired consultants, including former New York City Commissioner William Bratton, to evaluate the department from the top down and make recommendations.

His "Strategic Plan for Improved Policing" laid out hundreds of "priority actions" that the agency said it was pursuing.

Batts, who declined to comment this week, told the San Francisco Chronicle last year that federal oversight amounts to an expensive form of micromanagement.

"It's outrageous," he said. "That's a lot of money for a city like Oakland. It could have been spent on Head Start programs."

After Batts left for Baltimore looking to fix the department, the federal judge overseeing police reform in Oakland hired a compliance director there: former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

Frazier was paid $270,000. He lasted just one year before the judge concluded his job was "unnecessarily duplicative and has been less efficient and more expensive" than another monitor.

That other monitor remained in place — and also clashed with Batts' successor.

In Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake fired Batts last year after Gray's death from injuries suffered while in police custody, the unrest that followed and the start of a spike in violent crime that continues.

Others say federal oversight is the only way to make sure fixes are made.


Detroit emerged from a consent decree in 2015. Ken Reed of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality said he believed the department there improved under federal oversight.


He said it has shown troubling signs of backsliding since the decree was lifted.

"There were some successes, but it needed to be there longer," Reed said. "The excuse that it was too expensive, that's unacceptable."

Baltimore's consent decree comes as city is suffering record violence. Homicides and gun violence jumped more than 70 percent in 2015, and remained at similarly high levels last year.

Martin, of the Police Department's DOJ compliance unit, said she sought to make sure that Justice Department officials understood the level of crime and the needs of the city.

"We are going to train [officers] to police constitutionally, but we are not going to handicap them," she said. "I'm going to be ever-vigilant about that, because it's just absolutely necessary.

"Their top priority is to get bad guys off the street. We are just going to have to document better how and why we are doing that."

The president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers in Baltimore complained Thursday that it was not included in the consent decree process. The Fraternal Order of Police has been publicly battling Commissioner Kevin Davis over his management of the agency.

Walker, the Nebraska professor, said some officers will likely continue to resist the consent decree.

"The turning point will occur when officers begin to realize that all of these policies on good policing will make their jobs easier," he said. "They will use force less, which means they will be investigated less.

"The city will be just as safe," he said. "In fact, it will be safer."

The monitors file periodic reports. Baltimore's agreement says the monitor won't have any say in day-to-day decision making.

"You're not going to see anyone running to the judge in the middle of the night because something isn't happening in the moment its demanded," Curlett said.

"The real tension exists when it comes to the issue of when the city is deemed to be in compliance," he said. "The monitor might say the department is only at 75 percent across these categories, and it's not good enough until they're at 90 percent. There were battles where the department is saying, 'Look, we've done a good enough job, you're holding us to too high of a standard.'"

James K. Bredar, the federal judge assigned to oversee and enforce the consent decree struck between the Justice Department and the City of Baltimore, brings an unusual — some say, unusually appropriate — background to the task.

Curlett announced plans last week to challenge Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby in the Democratic primary next year.

Longo, who left Baltimore to serve as police chief in Charlottesville, Va., worked on a monitoring team in Cincinnati and is currently part of the consent decree oversight in Cleveland.

He said the consent decree process will allow the department to usher in technology it probably couldn't have been able to otherwise afford.

The review begins with members of the monitoring team riding along with officers on patrol and learning about the department's systems.

Monitors measure compliance with the decree by looking at records and files, participating in police commander meetings and observing officers.

"A lot of times the department gets weighed down by the findings report," Longo said. "Forget about that. With the consent decree, you've promised to do things, and the only way to move forward is to start doing those things."

Consulting and law firms from across the country will likely make up the bulk of those applying for the monitoring job after a request for applications is issued by the city and Justice Department.

Under the terms of the consent decree, members of the public will have two opportunities to comment on applicants before a selection is made.

Information on all applicants is to be posted online, and public comments and recommendations on the teams will be collected and considered by the city and the Justice Department.

The two parties will then choose teams they want to interview further in Baltimore.

After that, the city and the Justice Department will either agree to finalists for the position, or each will propose its own finalists. They may conduct additional interviews, and the finalists may respond to comments from the public.

Then there is to be a public hearing, at which finalists will respond to written questions submitted by the public.

Walker said residents and officers alike should have confidence that the consent decree will produce more meaningful change than previous efforts.

"This is different because it's a court order," he said. "Failure to comply will get somebody in contempt of court."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.