Heading toward consent decree on policing, Baltimore activists prepare for opposition from officers' union

Leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 talk about the U.S. Department of Justice consent decree. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

As the U.S. Justice Department and city officials negotiate sweeping reforms of the Baltimore Police Department, community leaders and civil liberties advocates are preparing for a parallel fight.

The activists say they expect the city's powerful police union to use its collective bargaining agreement with the city and state laws that limit the ways in which police officers can be disciplined to block progress.


They say they have seen police unions facing federal consent decrees in other cities throw up roadblocks to reform, and have watched the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 push back against change in Annapolis.

"The DOJ really needs to make a choice," said Lawrence Grandpre of the think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. "If they are willing to actually deconstruct the systemic issues, or if they are going to do what's politically expedient and pay lip service to these systemic issues like the trial boards and Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights without actually changing them.


"Which is why our strategy is to have the community push those changes. The DOJ can come along or not."

Lt. Gene Ryan, the president of FOP Lodge 3, said suspicion of the union is misplaced.

"We're going to have to wait and see exactly what reforms they bring out, but we're not opposed to reforms," he said.

He cited the Blueprint for Improved Policing, a 2012 report in which the union called for increased training and less emphasis on data-driven policing tactics that critics say result in indiscriminate street stops and corner clearing.


Investigators for the Justice Department reported this month that police in Baltimore routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents, particularly in predominantly black neighborhoods, in virtually all aspects of daily police work — including making unlawful stops, using excessive force, dismissing reports of sexual assault and harassing protesters.

Attorneys for the Justice Department and the city now are working out the details of a consent decree to reform the department.

Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, said, "The temptation is going to be to have superficial reforms, when really the problems go very, very deep.

"They are deeply systemic," he said, "so deeply systemic solutions are going to have to be found."

Sgt. Robert Cherry, a past president of FOP Lodge 3, now chairs a union committee that's preparing for the consent decree.

"All the words about transparency, about the composition of the trial board, about us not supporting reform, I think it's all a red herring," he said. "I think the FOP has proved that we do support reform."

The union opposes changing the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, which governs the treatment of officers accused of misconduct, or the all-police composition of trial boards.

Cherry said the LEOBR protects the due process rights of officers, including minority officers, and that only police officers understand the job of cops well enough to pass judgment on their peers.

Ryan and Cherry said the city should focus on what they say are bigger problems for the department, such as its inability to attract and retain strong recruits and to fully staff shifts without relying on overtime.

They said the Justice Department and city leaders should be finding ways to improve training, hire more officers and attract more qualified applicants.

"That is what the mayor has asked for," Cherry said. "She invited DOJ in. This is a consent decree. We knew it was going to cost tens of millions of dollars. Put your money where your mouth is.

"What kind of a police department do you want? Do you want to keep the cops who are good, who are working in the community, who live in the community, who are making good cases?"

The city is currently in extended collective bargaining negotiations with the union over issues beyond the scope of the Justice Department investigation, including how officers are deployed, and on what schedule, at a time when overtime spending is well over budget.

Union members are also voting for their next slate of leaders, whose terms begin in October — meaning it's not clear who will lead the union during the consent decree process.

Ryan is running against Lt. Victor Gearhart — the union's current first vice president and a sharp critic of the Justice Department report.

Gearhart was suspended by the department this month for calling protesters against police "thugs." He also has a lawsuit pending against the department for switching him from patrol to overnight building security this year after a dispute with protesters on social media.

In a recent email to union members, Gearhart wrote that the Justice Department "argues that we should drop our guard and approach everyone like we are patrolling Sesame Street," and that such an approach would lead to officers getting killed.

In another email, he said the Justice Department report "appeared less than a serious investigation and more like a witch hunt packed with anecdotes chosen to prove the authors preconceived notions."

Gearhart declined to comment for this article.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the consent decree negotiations. An "Agreement in Principle" signed by the Justice Department and city officials, a precursor to the consent decree, says the Justice Department "acknowledges that the City and BPD are subject to state law and collective bargaining obligations."

Timothy D. Mygatt, deputy chief of the special litigation section within the Justice Department's civil rights division, said the consent decree can "only lead to a limited set of reforms" and should be viewed more as a "catalyst" for change.

The federal judge presiding over a 2012 consent decree that requires Seattle to adopt reforms to address policing problems similar to those found in Baltimore — including excessive force by officers and biased policing — said this month that the union there was trying to hold that city "hostage" by demanding significant wage increases in exchange for required reforms.

Union officials had written to the judge arguing that some proposed reforms violated officers' collective bargaining rights and that the judge lacked the authority to impose them.

Samuel Sinyangwe is a co-founder of the group Campaign Zero, which has tracked Justice Department consent decrees nationwide. He said police unions "have obstructed the reforms proposed in those decrees at every opportunity."

They also "have been really meticulous and persistent in making sure these barriers to accountability are embedded into the system at every level," and it's up to activists like those in Baltimore to push back, he said.

Local leaders said that work is underway.

Ray Kelly, co-director of the nonprofit No Boundaries Coalition, called the police union "our No. 1 opponent for reform."


About 45 residents and activists who gathered on a recent evening at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church — a historically black congregation with a long history of civil rights activism — were given a draft of "The People's Decree," an outline of demands the group intends to put to the Justice Department.


Kelly's coalition is calling for public input and transparency in the city's collective bargaining with the union and for the dismantling of disciplinary protections for officers — including bars on civilian investigation of police misconduct and the five-day period officers accused of excessive force are given before they must speak to authorities.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has begun an email campaign calling on residents to write to FOP Lodge 3 to disavow Gearhart and demand that it "support police accountability and transparency."

"Tell the FOP," the ACLU wrote, "they need to stop blocking the call for police reform."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.