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Justice officials outline how they will investigate the Baltimore Police Department

Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, discusses the importance of the community in the civil rights investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

The Justice Department's chief civil rights official promised a "very thorough and fair" investigation into whether Baltimore police have engaged in a pattern or practice of violating citizens' constitutional rights or discriminatory policing.

Two months after riots engulfed parts of the city, about 200 people assembled Thursday night to hear how federal officials will investigate the Baltimore Police Department.

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"We are going to be very thorough and fair," Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, said to the crowd at the University of Baltimore. "The community has a very important and central role in this process."

The Justice Department will not take a "cookie-cutter" approach to the probe, she said. Investigators will look for constitutional violations, such as use of force, illegal stops, searches and arrests and discriminatory policing, Gupta added.

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Residents and activists have called for years for a probe that puts the weight of the law behind the findings. The investigation, which is expected to take more than a year to complete, could lead to a consent decree and years of oversight by the federal government.

Tim Mygatt, who will oversee the investigation, said federal officials will spend months interviewing elected leaders, officers and residents.

Gupta and Mygatt implored residents to come forward with information about police encounters. More community meetings will also be held.

"We are looking at the whole department, Mygatt said. He said investigators will follow up on every complaint, and information will remain confidential.

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Federal attorneys plan to examine police policies and procedures, misconduct claims, brutality allegations and excessive-force complaints, including those that have resulted in injury or death.

After the officials explained the process, residents broke into small groups to meet with federal lawyers.

Travis Robinson was one of those who spoke with attorneys.

"It's a step in the right direction," he said. "I hope it goes somewhere and they focus on justice for people who are harassed by police."

Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University, expressed optimism.

"With this format, people will have the ability to have a more substantial dialogue," he said. "They'll be able to flesh out more details."

The Justice Department started a collaborative review of the Police Department last fall. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services agreed in October to work with police and began an expected 18-month effort in January. But that type of review doesn't carry the weight of the law.

Officials began the collaborative review after The Baltimore Sun reported last year that city taxpayers had paid nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct since 2011.

Officers battered dozens of residents during questionable arrests, The Sun reported, resulting in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure and, in some cases, death.

Thursday's forum had a different tone from one in April, when about 300 people attended a meeting at Coppin State University to voice concerns about police. Dozens of residents — most of them black — inundated federal officials and outside consultants with assertions that police have been brutalizing residents with impunity.

The meeting at Coppin was held just days after the arrest of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old Baltimore man suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody and died a week later.

Federal officials said they soon realized that the collaborative review would not mend the rift between the police and community.

"We don't know where the facts will lead us," Gupta said. "We will go where the facts take us. This process is not going to happen overnight."

twitter.com/MarkPuente

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