A U.S. Department of Justice official promised Wednesday that his agency's months-long investigation of police brutality in Baltimore would be a "candid" assessment, and federal lawmakers threw their support behind the probe.
Ronald L. Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said he met with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts in Arkansas on Wednesday at a U.S. Conference of Mayors event focused on police misconduct. Davis said two staffers and up to four outside experts would contribute to the Baltimore probe, which could last six to eight months.
His agency is conducting a "collaborative" review of the city Police Department after being invited in by the mayor and Batts last week. Such reviews differ from full-scale civil rights investigations because they are agreed to by local officials and are not enforced by court order. The process can turn into a full-scale investigation if federal officials find serious problems, as they did in Ferguson, Mo., where the police shooting of an unarmed teen sparked a national outcry.
"We have an obligation to be very candid," Davis said, adding the review could call for reforms that would be financed by the city. "In this case, the enforcement will not be in court. It will be in the court of public opinion."
Meanwhile, Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, as well as Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John P. Sarbanes, all Democrats, wrote to Attorney General Eric H. Holder to ask for an investigation into "allegations of brutality and misconduct by the Baltimore Police Department." They said they supported the mayor's request, adding that the federal agency and the city "can determine the most appropriate nature of the investigation."
"While the vast majority of police officers act within the law, incidents of police brutality and misconduct degrade the trust that is necessary for an effective relationship between law enforcement and the very communities they are meant to protect," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge your Department to conduct this investigation expeditiously and take the steps necessary to help restore public confidence in the Baltimore City Police Department."
Last week, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young also wrote a letter to Holder, but he called for a broader, civil rights probe.
"The council president does not support anything less than a full-scale investigation," Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said Wednesday.
Rawlings-Blake and Batts met with leaders of several cities in Little Rock to discuss the Department of Justice review. Rawlings-Blake said she talked with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Joseph "Mitch" Landrieu and other leaders who had experience with the agency's probes.
"We're looking for best practices and things we can bring back to Baltimore," Rawlings-Blake said. "We've been talking about the honest work of re-establishing legitimacy in those areas where the police and community don't have strong relations. We're discussing the most effective way to do that."
Holder addressed the mayors conference, as did former President Bill Clinton. The two-day meeting is being held to discuss "community policing strategies" and "building police-community trust." The gathering marks 20 years since Clinton established the Justice Department's community policing program.
On Tuesday, Batts released a sweeping plan to reduce police brutality, including the possibility of equipping officers with body cameras. The report, called "Preventing Harm," credited Batts for efforts already underway in the department and sought new funding and powers for the commissioner's plans. In it, Batts called for increasing staff in the internal affairs division and negotiating with the police union for wider authority to quickly punish rogue cops.
The report cited a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation that revealed residents have suffered battered faces and broken bones during arrests. The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits since 2011, The Sun found, and nearly all of the people involved in incidents leading to those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges. The investigation also found that some Baltimore officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and city officials were unaware of the scope of the problem because they lacked comprehensive tracking systems.
Late last week, Rawlings-Blake and Batts called for a federal review of the Police Department.
Kevin Lewis, a Justice Department spokesman, said the agency's work will include "a review of [Baltimore police] practices and recommendations for improvement to increase trust within the community and avoid use of excessive force."
He said the review is similar to ongoing investigations in Philadelphia, Spokane, Wash., and Ferguson.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services launched an eight-month probe into police shootings at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
A Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation published in December 2011 highlighted the issue of fatal police shootings over the previous 20 years. Most of the shootings were ruled justified, but the newspaper raised concerns about the department's lack of accountability.
The Department of Justice finished its review in November 2012 and issued 75 findings in a 155-page report in May 2014.
The report focused on the use of deadly force, including an analysis of policies, training, tactics, documentation and case reviews. Investigators interviewed more than 100 people, including residents, current and former officers, prosecutors and police union officials. The Department of Justice paid $300,000 for the probe.
Among its 75 findings, the federal government found 16 shortcomings in the department's use-of-force policies and procedures. The report recommended that the agency create a Force Investigation Team, a team of specially trained officers, to probe incidents.
Batts created a similar team this year, modeled after Las Vegas, to investigate incidents in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice started a similar review in June 2013 at the Philadelphia Police Department. Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey sought the agency's help after a string of officer-involved shootings enraged the community. Prosecutors cleared officers in the shootings.
Ramsey publicly said that an internal assessment might not have the same credibility as a federal review, according to news reports. At the time, the force had about 6,400 officers.
Federal officials said they would examine old shooting cases but would not reopen them. While they would pay special attention to the use-of-force policy, officials said they would conduct a comprehensive review of the agency's overall work, news reports say.
Capt. Matt McCarthy, of the Las Vegas Police Department, described the federal probe as an "exhaustive review."
"It was a lot of work," he said. "It will make our agency better."
His department implemented most of the recommendations by the end of 2013, even before the final report was released. One of the biggest changes involved briefing the public within 72 hours after officer-involved shootings, he said. Another benefit from the review is the new reality-based training that leads to safer and more effective policing, such as learning de-escalation techniques to diffuse situations.
As the agency moves forward, McCarthy said, "you have to put the right people in the right spots to make changes."