U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Thursday that she is hopeful Baltimore officials and the Department of Justice will agree to a binding consent decree on police reform before President Barack Obama leaves office next month, but that reaching a deal is now up to the city.
"At this point, the ball's in the city's court," Lynch said.
Some observers said Lynch's comments were clearly intended to put pressure on Mayor Catherine E. Pugh's administration to reach an agreement before President-elect Donald J. Trump takes office. Advocates of police reform have questioned whether Trump will continue to apply pressure on the city when he moves into the White House early next year.
Lynch may be weighing in because of recent comments from Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis about not wanting to rush the process of reaching an agreement and expressing concern about the cost to the city of changes that could be required, observers said. City and federal officials initially had said they hoped to complete the agreement by Nov. 1.
"There come spots in the negotiations where, for various reasons, things get bogged down and you need somebody to come in and play the role of closer," said Jonathan Smith, a former chief of special litigation in the Justice Department's civil rights division. Lynch is "trying to make sure it gets pushed across the finish line," he said.
The Justice Department finished delivering its proposed language for the consent decree to the city last week — after providing individual sections over recent months — and both sides are now working through edits, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
Pugh said Wednesday that she didn't know details of the negotiations, but would prefer a strong consent decree to a quick one. She declined Thursday to respond to Lynch's comments.
Pugh spokesman Anthony McCarthy said Wednesday that Baltimore officials are working more quickly than other cities that took more than a year to negotiate such agreements. Some cities have completed their agreements in less time as well.
"We are moving very quickly on very complex negotiations," McCarthy said. "The mayor is committed that she wants a consent decree. However long that takes, we want a good, solid consent decree. We don't want something that's just fast."
The Justice Department has been negotiating with city attorneys since August, when it released a scathing, 163-page report outlining a history of unconstitutional and discriminatory practices by city police.
The report described a pattern of violations of residents' rights, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, including officers disproportionately targeting, stopping and searching black pedestrians and motorists. It also found a history of police improperly dismissing accounts of sexual assault and violating protesters' free speech rights, among other violations.
Any consent decree reached by the parties would be subject to court monitoring.
Davis has been an outspoken supporter of reform, and Lynch said the Justice Department has been "working well" with him. But this week, he warned against rushing into a deal, saying, "I understand the [presidential] election has introduced a new dynamic, but that shouldn't cause us to slam the gas pedal and get something wrong for a decade."
Thursday, the Police Department referred all questions to Pugh's office.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the city police union, said the union is "all for reform" — especially when it comes to staffing and training — but believes it should be undertaken carefully.
"We definitely don't want to rush, have a knee jerk reaction, and put something in place that may not work," Ryan said. "It needs to be thought through."
Other observers of the reform process, including residents and members of Baltimore's congressional delegation, have expressed concern that it will falter if it is not completed before Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20. They fear the Justice Department will be less concerned with reform under Trump, who has praised police tactics such as "stop and frisk" that have been rejected by current Justice officials.
Lynch spoke Thursday during an interview broadcast online by Politico. Afterward, Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, sent a letter to Pugh saying it would be "irresponsible" for the city to not reach an agreement with the Justice Department before the end of Obama's tenure.
He said Trump's nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, to replace Lynch as attorney general "threatens to end any hope for true reform through the consent decree."
Scott said the need for police reforms in Baltimore — including "training and policy reform, increased departmental transparency, civilian oversight, community policing along with technology and officer support investment" — became "crystal clear" after the unrest in Baltimore in 2015 following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
Ray Kelly, a community organizer with the No Boundaries Coalition, said local groups have been working for months to make sure their recommendations are heard. If the process stalls at this late stage, he said, it would create resentment.
"We had hundreds of people buy into this process, saying, 'If change is possible, this is how,'" Kelly said. "If it's not possible after all that work ... people are just going to say, 'We did everything and what do we get? We get Donald Trump, and our whole push for police reform gets lost in transition.'"
On Thursday, Lynch pointed out that her first trip as attorney general was to Baltimore after the 2015 unrest spurred city leaders to invite the Justice Department to investigate the Police Department. One of her last trips will also be to Baltimore, where she will provide an update and "hopefully an announcement" on the consent decree negotiations early next month.
"We are looking forward to getting a positive response from them on finalizing this consent decree," Lynch said of city officials.
The Justice Department has praised the Police Department for initiating several reforms on its own ahead of any formal agreement, including new training on impartial policing and the introduction of body cameras. But Lynch said a consent decree is important because it will establish a framework for reform that will be upheld by the court regardless of changes in the city administration, the Police Department or Justice Department leadership.
"Having that court enforceability is key and it's vital," Lynch said.
Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha who has studied police reform, said the city should be receptive to Lynch's push for an agreement. The Police Department needs to be reformed, he said, and implementing change without a consent decree will be even more difficult.
"It's going to cost money no matter which way it's done. And if they are already wary and worried about the dollar cost, I wonder whether they really have the commitment to get it done on their own," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.