Judge enforcing Baltimore Police consent decree questions department's ability to implement reforms

The judge overseeing federally mandated reform of the Baltimore Police Department is expressing doubt that the department has the leadership ability or resources to implement needed changes.

In an order granting an extension to submit draft policies, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar questioned whether the department will be able to comply with the federal consent decree ordering reform.

“The court does not doubt [the department’s] good faith, but it has growing concerns about the BPD’s ability to deliver on its promises, i.e., its capacity to achieve compliance with the consent decree,” Bredar wrote.

Bredar noted the department’s willingness to embrace change — something he says other cities have resisted — but he sharply criticized the turnover of police leadership and lack of resources. And he said those factors could hinder progress.

“A lack of consistent, strong leadership can have cascading ill effects throughout an agency; this is but one example of that,” Bredar wrote. “The Department’s good faith becomes almost irrelevant if they otherwise lack the leadership, resources and capacity to follow through and achieve compliance.”

The police department, the Pugh administration and the U.S. Justice Department entered into the consent decree in April 2017 after a federal investigation found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices.

Since then, the police department has had three different leaders. The agreement was reached under Commissioner Kevin Davis, whom Mayor Catherine E. Pugh fired in January. Pugh then appointed Darryl De Sousa, who resigned in May after he was charged with failing to file federal tax returns. Garry Tuggle was named interim commissioner after De Sousa resigned.

Pugh said Tuesday her administration has launched a national search for a new permanent police commissioner. The job posted on police industry sites this week, she said.

“We want what every city wants,” the mayor said. She said she is looking for someone who understands Baltimore and its history, knows the ins and outs of the consent decree requirements and is capable of restructuring the department. Also, Pugh said she wants a commissioner fully versed in community policing.

She said she understands the pressure the judge is placing on the city to ensure the consent decree is properly implemented and said efforts are underway, such as looking for more resources to improve the department’s technology. She said the city has been able to secure millions of dollars from the state and philanthropic groups. Pugh also highlighted a new gunshot detection system as evidence of progress

“We’re focused on reducing violence every day,” Pugh said. “This is not a situation that is going to transition overnight.”

A police spokesman deferred comment to the mayor’s office.

Bredar’s comments came in response to a request by the monitoring team overseeing the consent decree implementation.

The independent monitoring team has been working with the police department and the Justice Department to rewrite police policies — from body-worn cameras to stops and searches — which officers are later expected to be trained to follow. But the monitoring team found it had to delay policies for the police department’s Office of Professional Responsibility because of the unit’s “organizational deficiencies.”

“It quickly became apparent that OPR suffers from organizational deficiencies that impede its work,” wrote Monitor Kenneth Thompson and Deputy Monitor Seth Rosenthal in recent court filings requesting the deadline extensions.

They said the office, which oversees Internal Affairs investigations, “has operated with a dizzying assortment of units and sub-units, which has created significant operation inefficiencies that introduce the risk that investigations are not as timely, well-supervised, or effectively managed as they must be.”

It is expected to take several years for the department to implement all the reforms outlined in the 227-page consent decree. Much of this year’s work is expected to be centered around policy writing and training.

But when the monitoring team began to delve into policy issues at the Office of Professional Responsibility, members found deeper dysfunctions they said must be addressed first.

For example, the monitors said not all units that address misconduct, such at the department’s Inspector General, fall under the office. Some of the unit’s functions changed as the department’s leadership changed, the monitor wrote. “In short, the precise responsibilities of OPR remain unsettled, rendering it difficult to move forward with the development of policy,” the monitor said.

The monitoring team noted that many misconduct complaints are assigned to investigators based on an officer’s district — which means investigators routinely deal with the same officers or supervisors, which could cause biases and uneven caseloads. The team also expressed concerns about the office’s relationship with the Civilian Review Board, an external oversight body of volunteers that investigates police misconduct complaints. The board can make recommendations to the police commissioner about discipline, but lacks authority to enforce such measures.

The monitoring team found that although both entities investigate misconduct and must interact, “the actual process for guiding such interactions has been ill-defined; no protocol for communication or coordination between the entities has ever existed.”

As part of the consent decree, a group of community volunteers was commissioned to evaluate the Civilian Review Board. The Community Oversight Task Force issued a report this month that recommends disbanding the civilian board in favor of a fully independent oversight body with “full investigatory and subpoena powers.”

The monitoring team said the department must also address larger structural issues, including the way supervisors address officer performance issues. The team said the way complaints are currently classified is overly complicated, and leads to a “lack of uniformity and consistency. Some classifications are overly broad, while others are too narrow.”

Overall, the monitoring team asked for the deadline extensions, saying it would be “extremely challenging” to address how the department deals with complaints without first addressing structural issues.

Bredar agreed.

“Given the magnitude of the problem unearthed, the court is compelled to grant the requested modifications,” he wrote.

A final draft policy and manual provisions on how the office investigates complaints won’t be completed until until next summer.

The next public hearing between the parties and the judge in court is July 26.

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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