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DOJ report starts years of costly reform efforts in Baltimore

The conclusion by the Justice Department that the Baltimore Police Department routinely violated people's civil rights begins a reform effort that is expected to take years and cost tens of millions of dollars.

Federal and city officials said Wednesday that they have reached the outlines of what will become a court-enforced agreement on how to remedy the widespread problems in the Police Department. The final negotiations are expected to be completed by Nov. 1.

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Similar deals between the Justice Department and other departments across the country suggest a range of possible results.

In some cases, the threat of court action has helped to prod police commanders, rank-and-file officers and their unions to accept changes, and to persuade local officials to pay for improvements.

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But in others, departments have struggled to meet the targets laid out by federal authorities, and court oversight has continued for a decade or more.

Implementing changes is costly. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said other big police departments have spent between $5 million and $10 million a year to impose fixes, and she anticipates a similar bill for Baltimore.

"We are committed to making sure these reforms happen," she said Wednesday. "While we understand that Baltimore doesn't have a blank check, in order for those reforms to happen there has to be commitment to dollars."

While City Hall will almost certainly struggle to find funding to pay for reforms called for in the agreement, the federal government is not likely to open up a wealth of new cash. Baltimore will have to compete with other cities for federal grants just as it has in the past.

Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who represents portions of the city and who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said finding that money is likely to be difficult in a Congress still focused on spending cuts.

Ruppersberger noted that the city's needs would have been handled with lawmaker-directed spending known as earmarks prior to the 2011 ban on the controversial practice. Instead, Ruppersberger said, the city will have to compete for funding. "When we had earmarks you could direct funding to a community directly," Ruppersberger said in an interview. "Now we have to go through the bureaucracy."

Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, a fellow House Appropriations Committee member, could not be reached for comment.

Under the preliminary deal, called an "agreement in principle," the city would implement reforms to address how police stop and search people, to combat discrimination, to limit officers' use force and to respect citizens' free-speech rights.

"The city commits to continue improving its policies, training, data collection and analysis to permit the assessment of officer activity and ensure that officers' actions conform to legal and constitutional requirements," according to the document.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said the agreement provides a framework for developing a consent decree to be enforced by a court.

Baltimoreans are to be given a chance to weigh in on measures that should be included before it is submitted to a judge.

Gupta said her team will ask residents and police officials how they would address the problems laid bare in the report.

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"There's going to be a lot of folks with a lot of ideas about what needs to happen now in the community and in law enforcement, and it's been really important to us to be able to hear directly from community members," she said in an interview.

A final draft of the consent decree is to be presented to the City Council.

The process does not always go smoothly. Leaders in Ferguson, Mo., initially agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department, but the City Council balked at the cost. The Justice Department sued the city to force changes — an option that would remain on the table in Baltimore.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies policing, said it's typically unwise for cities to battle the Justice Department in court.

"Most jurisdictions are not going to completely push back," he said.

Gupta said court involvement would bind the city to the process after Rawlings-Blake leaves office in December.

"That just helps build in and ensure sustainable reform over the long haul," she said.

Once a consent decree is approved by a judge, an independent monitor would be appointed to make sure the department is meeting its targets.

The monitor, often an experienced lawyer, is tasked with helping the Police Department make changes and reporting back to the court on progress.

A monitor overseeing police in Seattle maintains his own website and publishes detailed updates every six months.

Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, said the monitors are usually important sources of information.

According to the preliminary deal between Baltimore officials and the Justice Department, the consent decree will spell out objective measures with which to track the Police Department's progress.

The city has agreed to invest in technology to improve data collection and transparency so the court and the public can decide how well the department is doing.

Ganesha Martin heads the Police Department's Justice Department compliance effort. She said getting up-to-date technology in place will be an important early step.

"The only way you can get out of a consent decree is by showing compliance, usually through a threshold of 94, 95, 96 percent compliance," Martin said. "When you have a manual, paper system like ours that's antiquated and hand-entered, you could almost never show compliance in certain areas."

The preliminary agreement in Baltimore does not spell out how long monitoring will last, but an initial term of five years is typical.

In Cleveland, which entered an agreement with the Justice Department last year, police are required to meet reform targets consistently for two years before they can be freed from court supervision.

Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies police accountability, said the impact of court agreements struck after similar Justice Department investigations elsewhere has been "a mixed bag."

"Reform is a long-term project, often longer than the terms of a consent decree," Fagan said.

One of the issues consent decrees have not addressed is hiring criteria for new officers, he said. "That's more important than training and all the other pro forma pieces of these consent decrees," Fagan said. "We really do need a new generation of police officers, in Baltimore and elsewhere."

While the road map for departments to move on from a Justice Department civil rights investigation is well established, actually achieving progress has not always proved easy.

Senior officials surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2013 were generally positive about the results of Justice Department reviews of their departments. But some described clashes with their court-appointed monitors and expressed concerns about the cost of implementing changes.

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"PERF has been aware for some time that DOJ's role in monitoring local police is a complex, controversial issue," wrote Chuck Wexler, the organization's chief executive.

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The Seattle monitor wrote last year that despite generally good progress, getting officers to accept the changes was proving difficult more than two years into the process.

"At least some of the rank-and-file, first-level supervisors, and more senior officers have a ways to go before there is universal acceptance of the Consent Decree as the way that Seattle does policing," monitor Merrick J. Bobb wrote.

Analysts who have studied other cities say investigations and court-ordered reforms generally improve the quality of policing.

The publication of the Justice Department report is an important first step for Baltimore, Walker said.

"It's the beginning of a reform process that hopefully will change how the Baltimore police operate with some new professional standards that hopefully will result in lawful, constitutional policing," Walker said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and John Fritze contributed to this article.

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