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Team monitoring federal consent decree praises Baltimore police’s response to George Floyd protests; other key takeaways

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison listens to a question from Wesley Hawkins, of The Nolita Project, at a June rally at CIty Hall to remember George Floyd and other African Americans killed by police. A team overseeing the city's federal consent decree praised Harrison and his officers for their peaceful handling of protests.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison listens to a question from Wesley Hawkins, of The Nolita Project, at a June rally at CIty Hall to remember George Floyd and other African Americans killed by police. A team overseeing the city's federal consent decree praised Harrison and his officers for their peaceful handling of protests. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The team monitoring the federal consent decree overseeing Baltimore police praised officers’ response to the protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in its first comprehensive performance review of the department.

The Consent Decree Monitoring Team wrote in a report released Wednesday that the department “responded admirably to this summer’s protests calling for police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers." The monitoring team wrote that officers allowed protestors to peacefully assemble and march “while maintaining public safety.”

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“Community organizers deserve substantial credit for keeping the protests peaceful, but BPD also deserves credit for diligently complying with law and policy,” reads the report, adding that the department headed by Commissioner Michael Harrison “performed more capably than most of its peer agencies across the country.”

Thursday’s report offers the latest insight into how the department has complied with the consent decree the city entered into with the U.S. Justice Department in 2017. A Justice Department investigation prompted by the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 found Baltimore police officers routinely violated residents' rights.

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While the report praised the department’s response to the protests, its authors added that the ongoing issue of Baltimore police’s “antiquated” record-keeping system continues to make it difficult to measure whether the consent decree has made a measurable impact on officer conduct.

Other key findings in the team’s report include:

  • The monitoring team says the department has made meaningful progress toward training officers to comply with mandates from the consent decree. The team wrote that the department has conducted “effective” training on use of force, stop and seizure and body-worn camera policies among others.
  • The report praises Commissioner Harrison for “acting aggressively to address a culture that has been overly tolerant of misconduct and poor performance.” Harrison has called on the state legislature to amend the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights to make it easier to fire officers charged with misdemeanor of felony crimes.
  • Efforts to revamp the department’s response to behavioral crisis calls are encouraging, the report reads, as police are discussing how to better make use of available city services. The nonprofit Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore, which acts as the city’s mental health agency, criticized the department in July for its lack of integration of available Crisis Response services into the department. The monitoring team’s report says the department is actively looking to address the problem.

While the report praised the department’s openness to change, it also says that “does not mean — at least not yet — that the Consent Decree ultimately will succeed.”

“Rather, it means that, thirty months in, early-stage threshold reforms have taken shape and are showing that BPD has the capability to reform,” the report reads. “These reforms have not yet translated into widespread changes in officer conduct.”

The report cites two Baltimore police officers who were charged with crimes during the consent decree period — Officer Arthur Williams and Sgt. Ethan Newberg — writing that “it appears that these officers in fact responded to non-violent, constitutionally protected provocations with force, criminal charges, or both.”

Williams was sentenced to nine months in prison on misconduct in office charges in Aug. 2019 after he was filmed striking a man several times in East Baltimore, breaking the man’s ribs and jaw.

Newberg, a 49-year-old veteran of the force, was indicted on dozens of charges of false imprisonment, assault and misconduct in office last year. Prosecutors said the sergeant detained and assaulted citizens “for the improper purposes of dominating, intimidating and instilling fear.” He is awaiting trial.

While those arrests show much work is left to be done, the report said, they may have provided valuable lessons that the department used when responding so successfully to protests after Floyd’s death.

“If that is in fact what is happening, officers' experiences with the recent demonstrations, together with lessons learned from the Williams and Newberg prosecutions, could set BPD on a path to sustained compliance with the Consent Decree’s core First Amendment requirements,” the report reads.

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