One year into consent decree, Baltimore Police reforms move forward slowly and behind the scenes

The progress of the Baltimore Police Department Monitoring Team, one year into the consent decree agreement.

One morning last month, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar met with officials from the Baltimore Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice and demanded an update on the sweeping police reforms required under Baltimore's federal consent decree.

Bredar said he had been watching the corruption coming out of the Gun Trace Task Force trial, according to participants, and said he wanted to know the parties were making progress — particularly as it related to police misconduct investigations.


Michelle Wirzberger, director of the police department's Consent Decree Implementation Unit, said Bredar wanted to feel confident the department "understood its responsibility to make change" — and soon.

"He understands the moment that we are in," Wirzberger said. "That if we do not make these changes now, if we do not engage in this significant reform process intentionally and boldly, [then] we are lost."


The judge is not alone.

One year after Bredar signed the consent decree, many in Baltimore are wondering whether the reforms are actually being implemented.

Last year, a federal judge approved a consent decree between the city of Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice, mandating sweeping police reforms. Here’s a what you need to know about the consent decree.

The independent monitor overseeing the process has held a few public forums, but much of the reform work so far has been conducted behind closed doors. The first public court hearing on the decree since it went into effect is scheduled before Bredar on April 13.

Meanwhile, a shakeup in police leadership has left the reform effort without some of its most vocal internal champions. Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Police Commissioner Kevin Davis in January. Deputy Commissioner Jason Johnson and Ganesha Martin, the chief of consent decree compliance, then resigned.

Ray Kelly has closely tracked the consent decree process as director of the No Boundaries Coalition of Central West Baltimore. He said the federal prosecution of the Gun Trace Task Force — eight members were convicted of racketeering after years of robbing people of money and drugs — and the shakeup at police headquarters have left some residents "put off" about the process, and wondering whether real change will ever come.

"I know we are on track," Kelly said. "But the track is so slow."

Six members of the independent monitoring team spoke to residents about the progress at its first quarterly update at Mount Pleasant Church in Northeast Baltimore.

Bredar declined to comment for this article.

At a public forum this week in Northeast Baltimore, Erica Hamlett said she filed a complaint with the police department in November alleging that an officer pulled a gun on her son without justification, but has received no response.

"To me, it's just been talk," she told The Baltimore Sun. "It can't help the people that are in desperate situations. … It's not fair they get three to five years to get it together. It's a slap in the face."

The city and the Justice Department negotiated the consent decree after Justice Department investigators found that officers in Baltimore engaged in widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing.

The court-enforced agreement imposes significant restrictions on how officers can interact with individuals on the street, including in stops and searches, and orders more training in de-escalation tactics and interactions with specific groups, including youths and people with mental illness. It calls for increased supervision of officers, enhanced civilian oversight of the department, and more transparency. It requires new investments in technology and equipment.

It also calls on the department to take overt steps to tackle racial bias in its ranks.

The Justice Department, which investigated the department from May 2015 to August 2016, found that black residents were more likely to be stopped and searched as pedestrians and drivers, even though white residents were more likely to be found carrying illegal guns, illicit drugs and other contraband.

Justice investigators also found that "supervisors have issued explicitly discriminatory orders, such as directing a shift to arrest 'all the black hoodies' in a neighborhood."

The independent team monitoring Baltimore’s compliance with a federal consent decree mandating sweeping police reforms is “closely following” the Gun Trace Task Force trial and other recent events riling the police department, according to Kenneth Thompson, the team’s leader.

Wirzberger said she understands people have concerns about the change in department leadership, but new Commissioner Darryl De Sousa is "100 percent committed" to the consent decree, and her team — which has nine members and is growing — hasn't missed a beat.

She said her team has been working on an "aggressive schedule" revising police policies to reflect national best practices, launching studies into department staffing and technology needs and meeting with Justice Department counterparts to set deadlines for reforms in training, supervision, discipline, data analysis and community-oriented policing.

In October, the city and the Justice Department picked a team of 22 lawyers, law enforcement officials and civil rights leaders led by Venable attorney Kenneth Thompson to serve as an independent monitor. That team has held meetings throughout the city to discuss its plan for their first year of oversight, which Bredar approved in February. But the meetings have been sparsely attended.

Wirzberger said most of the work being done now isn't "sexy," but "foundational." She said the work now is critical to success in coming years, when new policies go into effect, training is conducted, and officers are held to new standards.

She said her team talks with their Justice Department counterparts "every single day, without fail."

The Justice Department declined to comment.

At the recent community meeting, members of the monitoring team said they have been focused on issues they considered most pressing, including stops, searches, and arrests, impartial policing, the use of force and police misconduct and accountability.

"You have to prioritize," Thompson said.

Two top-ranking Baltimore police officials in charge of implementing reforms and the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice have both resigned following the mayor’s firing of the police commissioner last week.

Chuck Ramsey, the principal deputy monitor, said the group has met with the police union and put together a focus group of officers to update them on progress.

Wirzberger, whose husband is a retired Baltimore police major, said it's part of her job to explain to skeptical officers that the consent decree will help them with resources and staffing.

The police union did not respond to a request for comment.

The full cost and timeline for the consent decree are unclear. The deal ends when the city comes into compliance with the requirements. The federal government will not provide funding to help the city comply.

The police department has been working to improve its operations since 2015. That was the year Freddie Gray died in police custody, the city erupted in riots, and the Justice Department launched its investigation.

The department purchased a new fleet of vans to transport detainees and a new software system for disseminating written policies to officers.

Martin, who led the consent decree implementation unit before Wirzberger, said the improvements were designed not only to protect citizens and officers, but also to give the department a head start on reforms.

The team overseeing police reforms in Baltimore released a plan Monday outlining dates and goals for the year.

"We really wanted to make sure that we were ahead of the curve, because in our mind, if we're ahead of the curve, and something comes up that we didn't expect, then it gives us a little bit of a cushion for us to continue having progress and not fall behind in a way where we weren't reaching compliance," Martin said.

Davis, in his first public comments since being fired, said the consent decree is absolutely necessary.


"Long-avoided investments in policing are now being addressed in Baltimore thanks to this court-mandated and court-enforced settlement agreement," he told The Sun this week. "More cops, faster hiring supported by modern applicant management software, scenario-based de-escalation training, better policies, computers in cars, the strategic decision support center and other recent improvements have positioned the BPD to succeed in coming years.


"It's a long-term commitment, however. As the implementation phases take place over the next few years, we must avoid talking about reform and crime reductions as separate issues. The latter can never be achieved and sustained without the former."

Pugh has praised the consent decree. But while she has publicly highlighted successes, such as finding the funds to buy mobile computers for patrol cars, she has said less about the more challenging issues identified by the Justice investigators, such as racial bias among officers.

Asked this week why she and the police department rarely talk about the investigators' core finding — that the police were racially biased — Pugh said some of the problems were no longer as serious as they once were.

"You've got to remember the consent decree was a 10-years-back look. This was not just about yesterday or last year or the year before," she said. "I don't know that that is as great an issue now as it was 10 years ago when we had more mass incarceration of African-American males."

Pugh also said overseeing the consent decree was no longer her responsibility.

"That's an independent operation," she said. "Everything that's in the consent decree has to be complied with. I don't get to monitor. What I did was get it done so it could be monitored."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

A federal judge has appointed  Venable attorney Kenneth Thompson as monitor of the sweeping consent decree mandating local police reforms.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun