Some officials and community leaders called Monday for the U.S. Department of Justice to expand the ongoing "collaborative review" of the Baltimore Police Department by investigating whether officers have been violating the civil rights of residents — including Freddie Gray, who recently died in custody.
"I think there should be a civil rights investigation" of the police, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, said Monday. "There's just too many deaths and too many violent incidents during arrests. Something is wrong. The police officers need more than sensitivity training."
Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp., said the 25-year-old's death should give the Justice Department more evidence to convert its months-long review to a broader probe.
"I think a full-fledged [investigation] would be in order already," Washington said. "I'm certain that the facts will lead them in that direction."
A Justice Department spokesman said the collaborative review, which is being handled by the agency's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, does not have the authority to intervene in ongoing investigations such as Gray's death.
Mary Brandenberger, spokeswoman for that office, has noted that federal officials can refer significant violations or issues to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for possible sanctions. But she rejected calls to broaden the collaborative review now, saying, "It would be premature for our office to do so as we are in the middle of the collaborative reform process."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts requested the Justice Department's help last fall, after a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that 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.
The collaborative review is being conducted by Hillard Heintze, a Chicago-based consulting firm that is examining the Police Department's use-of-force reports and investigations, training procedures and policies. At a recent public hearing, hundreds of city residents, most of them black, complained to the consultants about harassment, beatings and other mistreatment by city police.
Gray died Sunday, a week after he suffered a broken vertebra while in police custody. He was arrested near Gilmor Homes in Sandtown-Winchester, and police said Monday that the injuries occurred while he was being transported by van to a district station. But police said the injuries were not consistent with the use of force.
City Council President Bernard C. Jack Young said he continues to support a broad civil rights probe into the department — a step he requested in October, before the mayor and Batts called for the collaborative review.
Young and others have said that a civil rights probe would yield more lasting changes because its recommendations are binding. He said that although Gray's death is still being investigated, the circumstances of his injuries fit a pattern of police conduct that warrants such a probe.
He added that the Baltimore police should not be the agency investigating those questions.
"It would be both fair to the police and to the family of the deceased that an outside, independent agency conduct the investigation," Young said.
Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said he was drafting a letter to call for a civil rights investigation he planned to send on Tuesday.
"We will be formally asking the Department of Justice to upgrade the investigation to seriously consider a full-fledged civil rights investigation," Witherspoon said.
Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore's House delegation, said there are too many questions about what happened to Gray to call for any specific additional action now.
But he added he would question an investigation by the Baltimore state's attorney's office because its investigators are city police officers. He said the Maryland attorney general's office could be called upon to investigate Gray's death.
"No part of the process has been completed," Anderson said. "But a man is dead who was not dead an hour prior to being encountered by the police."
Baltimore police have said that Gray was stopped because he "fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence," according to charging documents.
Witherspoon said Gray may have run because of the troubled relationship between police and African-American men in Baltimore.
"I think that African-American men are nervous and scared with encounters with police because too frequently they end up being deadly encounters," he said. "He could have been fearful. Whether or not he did the right thing is up to debate. Walking while black is not a crime."
Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said civil rights investigations trigger the sort of systemic changes that are badly needed in Baltimore. Community meetings allowing residents to vent during the collaborative review process are not enough, she said.
"We need something more than this," Gladden said. "We need real change in the city of Baltimore and the way in which police officers engage with the community."