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Justice Department to probe allegations of police misconduct in Baltimore

Citing "disturbing reports of police misconduct," City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young asked Department of Justice today to conduct a full review of the Baltimore Police Department's polices, procedures and practices. Baltimore police brutality

The U.S. Department of Justice will conduct a civil rights investigation into allegations of brutality and misconduct by the Baltimore Police Department, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts announced Friday.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Batts requested the probe after a six-month investigation by The Baltimore Sun found city residents have suffered battered faces and broken bones during arrests.

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The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 cases since 2011, and nearly all of the people who received payouts were cleared of criminal charges, according to the investigation published this week.

"Over the last two years, we have not stopped working to reshape and reform the Baltimore Police Department," Batts said in a statement designed to help restore the public's trust with the agency.

"I didn't break it, but I'm here to fix it. The vast majority of this department comes to work each and every day to help make Baltimore a safer city. We know that there is a few of us who are not in alignment with the philosophy that I have set forth for this police agency."

Such broad inquiries by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division examine whether officers have a history of discrimination or using force beyond standard guidelines. They typically lead to consent decrees and years of court monitoring. Twenty federal probes into police departments have started in the past six years, in cities such as Cleveland and New Orleans.

Baltimore's mayor and commissioner said they started talking weeks ago with officials in other cities where similar investigations have occurred. City officials had been briefed on the results of The Sun's findings months ago.

Rawlings-Blake said she has worked to make the Baltimore police force accountable and more transparent since her tenure on the City Council. She has repeatedly said she does not condone police brutality.

"I welcome any partners willing to work constructively in those efforts, including the Justice Department," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "My administration is developing additional reforms to build on the progress we've seen since I became mayor.

"I didn't create these problems, but as the mayor in charge today I take seriously my responsibility to try and fix them. I've never turned a blind eye where bold leadership was needed. I will continue the hard work necessary to reform a department that was broken for too long. As a city, we will make progress together."

Earlier Friday, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he also had asked the Justice Department to investigate, citing "disturbing reports of police misconduct."

In a two-page letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder on Wednesday, Young wrote that he is a "concerned citizen" and an elected official "who is charged with ensuring equal justice for all" Baltimore citizens.

"These disturbing reports of police misconduct serve to further damage the fragile relationship between the city's police officers and citizens," Young wrote, citing The Sun's investigation.

Young also cited the deaths of Anthony Anderson and Tyrone West. Both men died in police custody during arrests, and prosecutors cleared officers of wrongdoing.

Robert F. Cherry, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, called on Rawlings-Blake and Batts to take responsibility and stop blaming previous mayors and police commissioners for current problems.

He said the union gave city leaders a blueprint for reform several years ago, including a proposal to raise hiring standards. He said Batts shouldn't look for outsiders to help do the job that Rawlings-Blake hired him to do.

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"If I was the police commissioner, I wouldn't ask the DOJ to come in here," he said. "The problems are not systemic across the entire agency."

The Sun, which focused on settlements and court judgments over the past four years, highlighted lawsuits related to allegations of assault, false arrest and false imprisonment. The city paid settlements and court judgments in civil lawsuits against officers over that period; most often, the people arrested were African-Americans.

Rawlings-Blake and Batts played down The Sun investigation this week, noting that most of the incidents documented in the article occurred between 2007 and 2010, before Batts became commissioner. The payouts were made since 2011.

But more recent incidents have come to light. In the past month, the agency reacted swiftly when two separate videos surfaced showing officers hitting suspects. Batts condemned — and suspended — an officer who struck a man at a bus shelter this summer. Officers in the second video are being investigated.

On Friday, Batts said the agency must address lingering community suspicions.

The officers' "actions bring discredit to us all and tarnish our efforts to work with our community," he said. "I've heard the complaints; I've heard the distrust. It is clear there is still work to be done, and we're up to the challenge to change the Baltimore Police Department."

He noted this is the fifth time he has requested an outside review of issues in the department since taking over in 2012. For example, an independent panel reviewed in-custody deaths, and a Baltimore lawyer's audit found numerous problems with the Internal Affairs Division.

"We welcome their examination. We have nothing to hide and everything to gain from outside review," Batts said of the federal civil rights probe. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Batts further stressed it is too soon to provide a time frame for the investigation of the agency's policies and practices.

Rawlings-Blake has noted that the police force has a fractured relationship with the community, and that police brutality was one of the main concerns she heard from residents during nine public forums held throughout the city this year.

Police leaders also have pointed to a host of reforms instituted since Batts took over in late 2012. For example, Batts disbanded a plainclothes unit that triggered complaints from council members and residents about its aggressive tactics in high-crime areas.

Various scandals have plagued the Baltimore Police Department in recent years. Sixteen officers were convicted in a kickback scheme with a towing company, and another was convicted of selling heroin in the Northwest District police station parking lot. Church leaders, activists and residents have repeatedly called for the federal government to intervene into the nation's eighth-largest police force.

Elected leaders applauded the federal civil rights probe.

"The reports of brutality by the Baltimore City Police Department are very disturbing," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said. "Many police officers do the right thing on every shift, but the public trust has been severely shaken."

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Sen. Ben Cardin said city leaders must work together to solve the problems.

"I am pleased that the mayor, City Council and police commissioner are united behind the need for a federal probe into the Baltimore Police Department," he said. "I intend to work with the Department of Justice to ensure the investigation proceeds expeditiously."

Activists offered differing reactions.

"It's a day late and far too many lives short," said the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership conference. "We've asked for some kind of intervention for quite some time. ... We think that it's long overdue."

"I certainly applaud the mayor and the City Council president and the commissioner for putting in this request," said the Rev. Heber Brown III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. "It certainly, to me, signals that they are beginning to hear clearly the concerns of the community."

The Sun's findings come as nationwide attention has been focused on a white officer's shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. — an incident that triggered days of violent protests. The officer said he acted in self-defense, but many saw the shooting as a symptom of racially biased policing.

The shooting triggered a wide-ranging debate on the use of force by police, and Holder announced an investigation of that town's police department. Published reports noted that five current and one former member of the 53-officer agency face pending federal lawsuits alleging they used excessive force.

In 2012, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson asked the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to review policies governing that police department's use of force. The request came after a high-profile chase in which officers fired 137 bullets into a car, killing both occupants. The federal review is nearing completion.

Jackson wanted an independent probe to validate internal changes already put in place to improve the police force's relationship with residents, a spokeswoman said.

"It would give another layer of credibility to the examination of our use of force," communications director Maureen Harper recently told The Sun.

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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What to expect

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division has opened more than 20 investigations into local police departments over the past six years, including in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white officer. Now Baltimore has been added to that list. Here's what could happen:

•Such probes examine whether officers have a history of discrimination or of using forced beyond standard guidelines

•If investigators find such "patterns or practices," they negotiate consent decrees and set up years of monitoring

•Police typically implement systems to increase transparency and data collection, build community-police partnerships, prevent discriminatory policing, implement independent oversight and develop more effective training and supervision of officers

Investigations don't always end in findings of constitutional violations.

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