Baltimore civil rights leaders call for tougher federal probe of police

Although Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review allegations of brutality in the Police Department, some civic leaders called Thursday for a more far-reaching — and hard-hitting — federal investigation.

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, said the police force needs more than the "collaborative review" that city and federal leaders have agreed upon. If city leaders care about improving the department's relationship with residents, the probe "should be a civil rights investigation," she said.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., past president of the NAACP branch, agreed. He said a wider investigation that carries the weight of the law is needed if Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is serious about transparency within the police force.

"We need a major, outside civil rights investigation," he said. "I don't trust this administration. We will benefit by pulling up all the carpet to see what is under it."

At the request of the mayor and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services agreed to conduct a "collaborative" review of the Police Department.

Such reviews differ from full-scale civil rights investigations because they are agreed to by local officials and are not enforced by court order. A review can turn into a full-scale investigation if federal officials find serious problems, as they did in Ferguson, Mo., where the police shooting of an unarmed teen sparked a national outcry.

The coming federal review is similar to ongoing probes in Philadelphia and Spokane, Wash., that are examining police shootings and other issues

In Las Vegas, another city that went through a federal review, the Department of Justice issued a 155-page report that focused on the use of deadly force, including an analysis of policies, training, tactics and documentation. Investigators interviewed more than 100 people, including residents, officers, prosecutors and police union officials.

Among its findings in Las Vegas, the federal government listed 16 shortcomings in use-of-force policies and procedures, and recommended reforms.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the request for federal help shows the mayor is committed to reforming the police force.

"There is no other mayor or administration in recent history that has been this bold in dealing with the challenges in the Baltimore Police Department," Harris said.

While Batts and Rawlings-Blake said they started talking weeks ago about the federal help, they unveiled the request last Friday, after The Baltimore Sun published results from a six-month investigation showing that residents have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests. The Sun found that the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits since 2011, and nearly all of the people involved in incidents leading to those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges. Some officers were involved in multiple lawsuits.

Last week's announcement about a federal review came after City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a broader civil rights probe.

Some in the community have been calling for years for a federal probe of the city Police Department.

Federal officials promised this week that the agency's months-long investigation of police brutality in Baltimore would be a "candid" assessment and would seek ways to "increase trust within the community and avoid use of excessive force."

Kevin Lewis, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department selected the "collaborative review" process based on conversations with Batts and the mayor. He asked that the community be patient.

"We believe the collaborative review will work with the Baltimore Police Department's needs," he said.

Lewis said each review is independently done and there is no set criteria that would turn the review into a civil rights investigation. "It doesn't rule out a civil rights investigation in the future if patterns persist."

In the coming weeks, officials plan to announce details about the federal review, an agency spokesman said.

Harris said Rawlings-Blake is ready to deal with the results if the review turns into a civil rights investigation. The mayor would not have asked the Department of Justice to conduct a probe if she feared the results, he said.

"She is committed to finding the best national practices that lead to positive change," Harris said. "She is willing to deal with anything they find."

Senior staff attorney David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland, a former Department of Justice lawyer, said police departments prefer collaborative reviews because they are "far less threatening" than full-scale investigations.

The broader probes, he said, focus on whether departments commit constitutional violations and often lead to lengthy and costly consent decrees overseen by federal monitors.

"I think [a civil rights investigation] would be valuable," he said. "In the end, it's up to the city and Department of Justice to determine which one they do."

Regardless of the type of probe, Rocah said eliminating problems in the police force must come from within the organization. A voluminous report compiled by consultants at the end of a federal review will not rid the force of bad officers, he added.

"In the end, you can't externally reform a police department," Rocah said. "At some point, it has to be internalized."

Batts is familiar with oversight.

Years before he became the top cop in Oakland, Calif., in 2009, that police force reeled from a scandal in which rogue officers were accused of beating or framing drug suspects, along with other claims that resulted in nearly $11 million in payments to 119 plaintiffs and attorneys. Under terms of a settlement, an independent expert was charged with monitoring the department's compliance, which continued while Batts led the department.

Batts stepped down in late 2011, saying his hands had been tied by bureaucracy and a lack of resources. His supporters also said he dealt with meddling from City Hall.

In early 2012, just months after Batts left, a federal judge ordered the department to get approval on major policing initiatives from the monitor and placed it a step away from federal receivership, according to news reports. The expert said police leaders for years had not identified problem officers to provide additional training and intervention, the reports say.

The deaths of Tyrone West and Anthony Anderson while in the custody of Baltimore police have prompted protests against police and prosecutors in recent years. Officers were cleared of wrongdoing in those deaths.

Hill-Aston, the NAACP branch president, said the deaths illustrate why the community wants the Department of Justice to conduct a wider probe. "No person should end up dying in police custody if they don't have a weapon."

Tawanda Jones, an anti-police brutality activist and West's sister, doesn't support a probe that does not carry the weight of law.

Jones has been corresponding with the Department of Justice since April in the hope an investigation would be launched, according to letters from the federal government.

"The mayor didn't want to touch this for months," Jones said. "I told them, 'The Justice Department is coming.' They thought I was playin'."

Harris said Rawlings-Blake did everything possible to bring transparency to the circumstances surrounding West's death, including endorsing the need for an outside body to review the case and asking that autopsy results be released publicly.

An independent panel criticized the way the Police Department handled the case, but determined officers did not use excessive force.

"These aren't steps you take if you're running from anything," Harris said. "The mayor can't make [the state's attorney's office] file charges."

mpuente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MarkPuente

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