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Chicago-based firm to lead federal review of Baltimore police

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts speaks at a press conference addressing police conduct and restoring trust with residents in October.
Police Commissioner Anthony Batts speaks at a press conference addressing police conduct and restoring trust with residents in October.(Cassidy Johnson / Baltimore Sun)

A Chicago-based security and risk management firm has been tapped by federal officials to lead the review of Baltimore's police force — a probe that comes amid allegations of brutality in that department and others around the nation.

Consultants from Hillard Heintze, including former police officials from around the nation, expect to be in Baltimore by the end of January to begin the review that is being coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice. With a heavy emphasis on accountability and transparency, consultants will examine the Baltimore agency's use-of-force reports and investigations, training procedures and policies.

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Project manager Robert Davis, a Hillard Heintze senior vice president and former police chief in San Jose, Calif., said the firm's involvement signals that federal officials want to reform the agency. "This is not window dressing," he said. "This is a serious issue. We have the full weight of the Justice Department behind us."

Two months ago, Baltimore officials requested the Justice Department's help in addressing brutality allegations and other misconduct. The move followed a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation that revealed residents have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests, and the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality since 2011.

Nearly all of the victims in incidents that sparked the lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges. The Sun also found that some city officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and there were significant gaps in the systems used to monitor police misconduct.

Earlier this month, Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner said complaints against officers have fallen sharply over the past year. But with protests around the nation focused on the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, local reforms begun two years ago have even greater urgency, Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said. The officials noted that challenges remain, and just hours after their news conference, the Police Department found itself denouncing an officer's actions and use of profanity, which were caught on video during an arrest.

The Justice Department picked Hillard Heintze and four other firms in September to split $5 million to conduct federal probes of police departments. The "collaborative reviews" seek to curb excessive-force abuses and develop strategies to rebuild trust with residents.

Hillard Heintze's recent work includes a scathing assessment of a suburban police force near Chicago and a contract to help reform the Denver Sheriff's Department, which has faced allegations of excessive force. The team coming to Baltimore includes retired police leaders from major cities, former Justice Department officials and academics versed in policing.

Terry Hillard, a retired Chicago Police Department superintendent and Arnette Heintze, former head of the U.S. Secret Service's field office in Chicago, founded the firm in 2004. It has offices in several cities, including Washington, D.C., Boston and Miami.

Hillard Heintze assesses police operations such as hiring, the effectiveness of internal affairs, training, deployment methods and policies for lethal and non-lethal force. It also monitors consent decrees and develops crime-reduction and community-policing strategies, while conducting corporate, security and background investigations.

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In Baltimore, to help pore over documents and interview officers, residents and community leaders, Davis expects to have six to eight consultants in the city during early stages of the review. They include Robert Parker, the former director of the Miami-Dade Police Department; A.M. Jacocks Jr., former Virginia Beach police chief; and Carl Peed, former sheriff in Fairfax County, Va., and former director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

The team is drafting a plan for the review and will know more specifics in the coming weeks; Batts and other police officials were briefed recently about the parameters of the review. Citywide meetings are also planned, and Davis pledged to keep the public informed about the review.

Besides examining the discipline and hiring practices of city police, Hillard Heintze consultants will examine lawsuits alleging brutality to determine whether officers and supervisors followed agency protocols. Davis stressed that consultants will not re-investigate the cases.

Davis, who has 30 years of experience in law enforcement and seven as a police chief, said it is crucial that supervisors hold officers accountable for properly using force on suspects.

City and police officials acknowledge that many Baltimore residents distrust police, noting that crime-fighting efforts have been hampered by heavy-handed officers. Consultants will also study the agency's community-policing strategies, in an effort to find areas for improvement, Davis said.

The cost of Baltimore's review cannot be determined until it is completed, according to federal officials, who will pay for the consultants.

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The Metra Police Department, which protects rail lines and stations around Chicago, hired Hillard Heintze to help improve operations and develop a road map for reforms. Hillard Heintze's assessment last year called the agency "a program in crisis," and a 144-page report contained 50 recommendations.

Donald Orseno, Metra's executive director, said the "assessment stings," but the agency needed outside scrutiny.

"They produced a constructive and valuable assessment so we could begin to reform the department," spokesman Michael Gillis said about Hillard Heintze. "They helped us hire a new police chief who was able to hit the ground running to re-energize its mission, leadership and operations."

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who tapped Hillard Heintze and another firm to review that city's sheriff's department, lauded both firms.

"We are bringing in nationally recognized experts who will review the department, its organization and policies and compare them with best practices seen around the country," Hancock said in a statement. "With all options on the table, these experts will make recommendations and help us implement them, and ultimately help the [sheriff's department], become a better department."

Meanwhile, a Justice Department investigative report released earlier this month slammed Ohio's Cleveland Division of Police for numerous failures, including widespread use of guns, Tasers and pepper spray on residents. Investigators found that force was "neither isolated, nor sporadic."

The 58-page report on Cleveland mirrors some allegations in The Sun's investigation into Baltimore police. Officers in both cities used boilerplate language in reports to say suspects became aggressive. Neither city had an adequate early-warning system to detect troubled officers. And neither city tracked civil lawsuits against officers.

Davis cautioned against comparisons, though, saying that various factors can create problems in an agency.

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While some critics called for a full-scale civil rights investigation in Baltimore, federal officials have repeatedly stated that one hasn't been ruled out. The current review could end at any time if Baltimore police leaders do not cooperate or if consultants find problems are so bad that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division needs to take over.

Davis vowed to conduct a thorough probe and to help improve the nation's eighth-largest police force.

"This is not just a bunch of cops coming in to review a police agency," he said. "What Baltimore is doing is what people want to happen."

twitter.com/MarkPuente

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