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Residents air complaints about police at Justice Department forum

About 300 people gathered at Coppin State University to air grievances over years of harassment, beatings and other mistreatment they say they have endured from city police.

Frustration spilled onto a gym floor Thursday night as hundreds of Baltimore residents gathered to air grievances over years of harassment, beatings and other mistreatment they say they have endured from city police.

They turned out for a meeting convened by the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, at the city's request, complaints about Baltimore's Police Department. When a former San Jose, Calif., police chief hired to lead the meeting told the crowd he wanted to know whether they "trust" the city's police, a woman shouted "No."

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From that point on, dozens of residents — most of them black — inundated federal officials with their assertions that city police have been brutalizing residents with impunity.

"When are you all going to help us?" cried out Wayne Amon Ra, 35, who said he was assaulted by police after he called officers for help when he detained a man breaking into cars.

About 300 people attended the town hall meeting at Coppin State University, which was part of a "collaborative review" between the Justice and city police departments into the agency's history of misconduct claims, brutality allegations and excessive force complaints, including those that have resulted in injury or death.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts requested federal help after a Baltimore Sun investigation last year found that city taxpayers had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements in 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. Officers had battered dozens of residents during questionable arrests, the investigation revealed, resulting in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure and even death.

The Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services agreed in October to work with police and began the 18-month effort in January. The review comes as lethal interactions between law enforcement officers and unarmed black males have grown into a pressing issue facing police departments across the country. The arrest of an officer in South Carolina shown on video fatally shooting a motorist in the back after a traffic stop is the latest of several incidents to spur calls for body cameras, sensitivity training and harsher punishment for officers.

In Baltimore, a man arrested Sunday in a West Baltimore housing complex remains in critical condition after suffering broken vertebrae that came after police detained him. The Police Department says officers used no force in arresting him but are investigating how the man was injured.

Sgt. David Crites, a detective in the city's Southeastern District, was charged last week with second-degree assault after Baltimore County police say he and a retired Baltimore police officer were involved in a fight between rival motorcycle clubs. County police say both men are members of the Chosen Sons motorcycle club, whose members have been linked to past incidents of violence.

Rawlings-Blake released a statement before Thursday night's meeting saying the number of lawsuits and discourtesy and misconduct complaints in Baltimore are decreasing while the numbers of officers "accepting punishment and found guilty at trial boards have increased."

As of February, Rawlings-Blake said, 21 Baltimore Police Department officers have accepted punishment outright. Five of the officers who decided to have their cases reviewed in trial board hearings were found guilty, she said.

The mayor did not specify how many of the officers were fired or the level of discipline they received. Her spokesman said she purposefully avoided Thursday's meeting so she would not detract from residents' ability to air their concerns openly.

"We aggressively recruited this program to Baltimore because of its proven track record of working with departments to build greater trust and transparency between police and the community," Rawlings-Blake said in her statement. "I am determined to not allow a small handful of bad actors tarnish the reputation of the overwhelming majority of police officers putting their lives in danger to make Baltimore a safer city."

Before the meeting Thursday, the group Baltimore Bloc, activists who have led several anti-brutality protests, told followers on Twitter that the meeting was theirs to take over.

The group tweeted, "lets make sure that the grand standers, the camera seekers, the microphone fiends DO NOT take over The People's Platform. NO ONE attempting to be an apologist for the police."

The notice did not appear needed as one by one, residents launched into complaints. Grace-Kelly Anoma, 21, a Coppin State student, said if officers aren't going to be fired for multiple excessive use of force complaints, they should have to register on a website like is required of sex offenders to warn residents of their history.

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"Why don't we have a registry for those officers who have too many excessive force complaints?" she asked.

Residents said they were tired of "10 officers" converging on small groups of 13-year-olds, and of routinely being ignored when they tried to report crimes.

Some complained not just about police but about the review, which they said was toothless because they view it as being too aligned with the Police Department. While the review was voluntarily requested by the city, Justice Department spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger said federal officials have the ability to refer significant violations or issues to its Civil Rights Division for possible sanctions.

The DOJ has conducted similar reviews of police departments in Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Spokane, Wash.

Past reviews have included more than 100 interviews with officers, elected officials, prosecutors, police union representatives and residents. Justice officials are expected to ride along with officers and study how they interact with residents and check how officers are supervised and monitored. They will also analyze how the police department tracks and responds to complaints about officers.

One of the many goals is to determine whether the use of force is constitutional. The entire effort is expected to conclude in a lengthy report with findings and recommendations for reform.

While federal officials have met with residents chosen by the mayor, critics say the investigators haven't sought out people with first-hand stories of alleged abuses. Among them was Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, who was killed during a 2013 traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore.

She has said that she has repeatedly called the Justice Department asking to be interviewed to no avail. On Thursday, she walked up to the microphone and called the review "phony."

"We are in a state of emergency here and you all are here with Band-Aids," she said.

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