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Rawlings-Blake seeks $2 million for lawyers to respond to U.S. probe of police

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants to spend $2 million for a Washington law firm to represent the city as it responds to the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights investigation of the Baltimore police force.

Howard Libit, the mayor's spokesman, said municipal lawyers have retained WilmerHale to assist the city through the end of the fiscal year in June.

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"They have an expertise in dealing with the Justice Department," Libit said. "They are assisting with the city's response to the investigation."

For months, federal investigators have been probing whether Baltimore officers have engaged in a pattern or practice of violating residents' constitutional rights or discriminatory policing. In other cities, such investigations have exposed problems such as brutality and outdated training, leading to federal oversight that can last for years and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The mayor's request for spending on the law firm — which will require City Council approval — comes as the administration also hopes to spend $533,000 to hire additional crime scene analysts to bolster the police department's overburdened forensics lab and to give the city's civilian review board more staffing to investigate police misconduct complaints.

The crime lab — which will receive a projected 15,000 requests this year to investigate homicides, burglaries and other crimes — would use $347,000 to buy new equipment and add eight technicians to a team of 28 and bring on two more lab supervisors for a total of five.

Another $186,000 would be spent to give the civilian review board a mediator, a community liaison and an additional investigator, in an attempt to help improve police-community relations.

All the new spending represents supplemental budget requests and must go before the City Council for approval.

Some council members were surprised Monday to learn how much the administration wants to spend on the outside legal counsel, especially on the heels of the $6.4 million settlement the city reached in September with the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died in police custody.

"That's a lot of money," said City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger. "We just spent $6.4 million, and now $2 million more? They need to answer a lot of questions about what we're paying for.

"They have to hire outside attorneys to answer questions? Every time we turn around we're spending more money on consultants," Reisinger said.

Representatives from WilmerHale could not be reached for comment.

City Councilman Eric T. Costello, who sits on the council's budget committee, said "complying with the [Justice Department] investigation is absolutely paramount."

He said he wanted to do a "deeper dive" into the expense.

"It's pretty evident Baltimore City needs some outside help" with the investigation, he said. "They're going out to get the expertise to help us improve the police department."

Councilman Brandon Scott said hiring the law firm could be money well spent, but he needs more information to decide if he'll support it. The attorneys could help the city mitigate costs in the long run, he said.

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"For me, any expense of taxpayer dollars always raises questions," Scott said. "If this can be used to offset and lower costs over time, it could be well worth this amount. We don't know if the administration knows something from [the Justice Department] that we don't know."

The federal intervention started last fall, just days after a Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city had paid millions in recent years on court judgments and settlements in 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.

A collaborative review between city police and the Justice Department morphed into a full-scale civil rights investigation after Gray died of a spine injury sustained in police custody. Rioting, looting and arson gripped the city on the day of his funeral in April, and days later six officers were charged in connection with his arrest and death. The first trial, of Officer William G. Porter, is ongoing.

With regard to the proposed funding for the crime lab, director Steven O'Dell said the lab is handling so many calls it can take a day for a technician to respond to the scene of a burglary. Calls for service are up an estimated 10 percent this year, following a citywide spike in crime.

Technicians can get so backed up that by the time they make it to some crime scenes, the victims say they no longer want the lab to catalog the evidence, O'Dell said. The lab had 91 such situations last month.

Providing a faster response "means a lot to us, but it means a lot more to the community," O'Dell said. "People get sick of waiting."

The new lab workers, who are trained scientists, should be on the job by July, O'Dell said. He expects the new hires to have a ripple effect on the department's ability to investigate crime because they will free up officers who would otherwise be tasked with helping to collect and process evidence.

Nathan D. Willner, president of the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association, said residents in the Northwest Baltimore community noticed the delays and asked the mayor about it at a town hall meeting several months ago. He said he was "ecstatic" to hear about the investment.

"When you are a victim of crime, the answer that there are more serious crimes elsewhere in the city doesn't really matter to you," Willner said. "I don't fault the city for focusing on the more serious crimes first. But if you're a homeowner, it's not comforting to know that compared to other places in the city, you're doing OK."

Rawlings-Blake said she is investing more money in the civilian review board as part of an ongoing restructuring effort by Kisha A. Brown, who was hired in February to run the city's Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement. The agency oversees the review board and two other commissions.

The board is charged with examining complaints of police misconduct and making recommendations to the police commissioner about disciplinary actions. Some board members have noted that the department rarely follows their recommendations.

Rawlings-Blake said she hired Brown to bring a "strong focus" to the office, and believes hiring additional staff will build trust in the law enforcement process. The money also will go to the hiring of a deputy director for the civil rights office.

Joyce Green, who has served on the board for about three years, said the additional positions will help, but the board will still be limited in its ability to address police misconduct. That won't change unless the General Assembly decides to give the board power, she said.

"The ability to do our job is hampered," Green said. "The public's view of the board is that we don't have any teeth. We don't. We can make recommendations based on our votes, but who pays attention to it?"

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