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Justice Department will hold community meeting on Baltimore police

Tawanda Jones stands with protestors outside Baltimore police headquarters on a "West Wednesday."
Tawanda Jones stands with protestors outside Baltimore police headquarters on a "West Wednesday."(Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore Sun)

As the U.S. Department of Justice prepares to hold its first public meeting to help address brutality allegations among Baltimore police, some local residents are criticizing the months-long federal review of the Police Department.

Tawanda Jones, whose brother died during a 2013 traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore, said she has repeatedly called the Justice Department to be interviewed, but has been rebuffed.

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"I will tell them they need to interview real families whose relatives have been killed by the police," said Jones, the sister of Tyrone West. "The biggest thing in this whole process is the lack of transparency."

The community forum on Thursday evening comes months after the Justice Department agreed to help reform the nation's eighth-largest police force. The agency started the collaborative review in January, but the 90-minute meeting at Coppin State University will be the first public gathering at which Baltimoreans can share views on their police force.

Last fall, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts requested federal help days after a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that residents had suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests, and the city had paid $5.7 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality.

The Sun also found that some city officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and significant gaps existed in the systems used to monitor police misconduct. Almost all of the people involved in the incidents that led to the lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.

Some Baltimoreans called for a full-scale civil rights probe, but federal officials said that working with the Police Department was the best way to improve its interactions with the community. Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have vowed to improve the department's relationship with residents.

In announcing details of the departmental review last fall, federal officials met behind closed doors with community members selected by the mayor. A larger and more critical crowd could show up Thursday.

Dayvon Love of LBS Baltimore, a grass-roots organization dedicated to African-American issues, said he doesn't know any local activist who has been interviewed for the Justice Department review.

Referring to the relatives of people who died in police encounters, Love said, "That's who they should be talking to. I don't have much faith in the DOJ to give us anything substantive."

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"The Justice Department is not looking for grass-roots activists or people who know what is going on," added local activist Leo Burroughs. "They're looking for ways to polish this thing up. I'm not sure they're interested in an accurate reflection of the truth."

Mary Brandenberger, spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, disagreed. Outside consultants, including former police officials from around the nation, have interviewed Baltimore officers, prosecutors and members of concerned organizations over the past three months, she said.

"We are still in the midst of the data collection process and will continue to contact community leaders to get their feedback," she said. "The town hall meeting provides an additional opportunity to get feedback from the community, and it is open to the public."

Racial tensions between police and community members have sparked protests in many parts of the nation.

In North Charleston, S.C., last week, a white officer was charged with murder after a video surfaced showing that he fired eight bullets into a black man's back as he fled.

In Missouri, two police officers were shot in March in the town of Ferguson after the killing of an unarmed black teen had sparked months of protests. The deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland at the hands of officers have also fueled outrage in recent months.

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Rawlings-Blake has asked the General Assembly for legislation to address the issue of police misconduct, but with the 2015 session scheduled to end Monday, the measures have little chance of passage.

A bill that would have created a new felony "misconduct in office" charge for officers was killed in the House Judiciary Committee. Another bill, which would have made it easier to discipline officers without their having the right to appeal, has stalled in the House Appropriations Committee.

On Sunday, Rawlings-Blake is scheduled to appear on "Meet the Press" on NBC and plans to discuss steps she has taken to address the issue of police misconduct, mayoral spokesman Kevin Harris said. The following day, she will travel to Annapolis in a last-ditch effort to revive the bill that is stuck in committee.

The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, the pastor at Empowerment Temple, has been interviewed for the federal review, according to his spokeswoman. Rawlings-Blake tapped Bryant to serve as a co-chair of her task force to develop rules for body cameras and to host a recent summit to end black violence. Bryant did not respond to a request for comment.

To improve the Police Department's standing with residents, Jones said, it's crucial for the Justice Department's consultants to interview people who have accused officers of excessive force.

Baltimore police said her brother resisted arrest in his 2013 traffic stop. An autopsy showed that West died of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle and summer heat.

His family and community activists say witnesses saw police beat him. A separate review of the case commissioned by police concluded that officers made tactical errors that "potentially aggravated the situation." No officer was charged.

Jones then became one of the Police Department's biggest critics. She and other activists have led protests, marches and vigils throughout the city to denounce alleged police brutality. "We are on the front lines everyday," she said.

The Justice Department developed the collaborative review process in 2011. Such reviews include an examination of training standards, the way officers interact with residents and the department's method of tracking complaints.

Since January, consultants from Chicago-based Hillard Heintze have been in Baltimore to review police policies, training procedures, general orders and investigative files connected to use-of-force cases.

Officials planned to scrutinize disciplinary files and records from review boards, and to examine residents' complaints to match them to lawsuits in which officers were accused of abuse. The Police Department invited consultants to attend community meetings in police districts.

Consultants have also ridden with officers and viewed use-of-force training, Brandenberger said. The review is being led by Robert Davis, a Hillard Heintze senior vice president and former police chief in San Jose, Calif.

The process could take 30 months from start to finish. The Justice Department plans to issue an assessment and recommendations, and provide two updates in the 18 months after the review is finished.

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Fatal police shootings in Las Vegas and Philadelphia have also led to federal reviews.

The review of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department included interviews with more than 100 people, including residents, officers, prosecutors and police union officials. The Justice Department issued a 155-page report with 75 findings.

The Justice Department recently completed its review in Philadelphia. A 188-page report detailed 48 findings and scores of recommendations to improve the use of force. One of the main findings was that "officers do not receive regular, consistent training on the department's deadly force policy."

The final recommendations in both cities placed a heavy emphasis on accountability and transparency.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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Baltimore Community Town Hall

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

When: 6:30-8:00 p.m. Thursday, April 16

Where: Grace Jacobs Center, Rm. 120, Coppin State University, 2500 W. North Ave., Baltimore

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