Federal judge overseeing consent decree says reforms will also aid in city's crime fight

After a stretch of violence that included 17 homicides in the last week of September, the judge overseeing the city’s consent decree said Tuesday that lawful and effective policing are “inextricably linked.”

“No police department can solve 17 homicides in a week without the cooperation of the community,” U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said at a quarterly hearing to discuss the Baltimore Police Department’s progress in implementing wide-ranging reforms.

The reforms required under the consent decree between the city and U.S. Justice Department will help in the crime fight, not take away from it, Bredar said during his opening remarks.

The hearing was attended by officials from Baltimore police, the city and U.S. Justice Department. It marked the third time the parties have gotten together to discuss the plan.

The parties also discussed the police department’s search for a new police commissioner. Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle has withdrawn from consideration for the permanent job, the city solicitor said Tuesday morning.

At the last quarterly consent decree hearing in July, much of the discussion was about the lack of leadership in the police department, which has been without a permanent leader since May. Bredar at the time expressed doubts that any of the wide-ranging reforms mandated by the consent decree would would actually take hold without a permanent leader at the helm.

City Solicitor Andre M. Davis assured Bredar at the last hearing that a permanent replacement would be named by Halloween. City officials have said little about the search and said they will not name the candidates, citing a confidentiality agreement.

“I will have more to say in the coming weeks,” Davis told the judge Tuesday.

The Baltimore Police Department has had three leaders since the consent decree went into effect in April 2017. The agreement was originally reached under Commissioner Kevin Davis, whom Mayor Catherine Pugh fired amid rising crime in January. Darryl De Sousa, Davis’ replacement, resigned in May after he was charged with failing to file federal income-tax returns. Tuggle, a former top-ranking Drug Enforcement Administration official, has been leading the department since.

The city entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department after a federal investigation that found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices in the city. That investigation was launched after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody. The reforms are expected to take years to implement, with the first year plan largely centering on revising policies, and training and reviewing officers’ performance later in the process.

In his remarks, Bredar said collaboration between police and the community is central to the consent decree reforms and whether the department reaches compliance.

If members of the community do not trust the police, they won’t tell detectives who committed the crimes, he said, adding: “Compliance with consent decree should bring progress on this front.”

While some in law enforcement might disagree, Bredar said, “in Baltimore, the course is set.”

The department cannot simply “clear corners, constitutional rights be damned,” the judge said, referring to past practices in which officers would make mass arrests.

“That didn’t work here,” he said. Instead, the “restoration of trust” should be the guide, he said.

At Tuesday’s hearing, city and Justice Department officials and members of the monitoring team, which is helping the department implement reforms, also discussed the recent findings from the Independent Review Board, which investigated the death and response to the shooting of homicide detective Sean Suiter, which concluded that the officer killed himself. The report, as well as one compiled by the monitoring team, have criticized the department’s response after the shooting, when it cordoned off sections of the Harlem Park neighborhood for several days. The monitor report said some residents were stopped and searched without cause. Many of the interactions were not recorded, and in some cases, officers turned off their body-worn cameras.

“What happened in the aftermath is of great concern,” Bredar said of Suiter’s death. The incident showed a complete breakdown between residents and police, he said.

Chief of the department’s legal affairs, Daniel C. Beck, said the department is using the report to improve its response, and has prompted new training for new officers, but also additional training for current officers and command staff.

The IRB report also criticized former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for releasing too much information to the public and making misleading comments.

Beck said department leaders have since showed restraint when releasing information. He noted a recent shootout last month between two officers that left one injured and 29-year-old Nathaniel Sassafras dead. Footage from one officer’s body-worn camera could not be retrieved because it was shot. The department delayed releasing information and the existing body camera footage until investigators could determine what happened, Beck said.

The parties also discussed an ongoing concern of staffing, including the recent staffing report completed by the Police Foundation, which found a 26 percent vacancy rate in patrol. As a result, the department is heavily reliant on overtime, which is both expensive for taxpayers but also dangerous for officers who must work extra-long shifts. Bredar noted that at any given time, 40 percent of the officers on the street are on overtime.

Bredar expressed the need for the department to continue to see quality candidates with integrity, even when there’s a demand to fill positions.

Misconduct investigations have also been a top concern in a department that has faced a number of scandals, including the convictions of eight former Gun Trace Task Force officers who were accused of accused of robbing drug dealers and cheating on their overtime pay.

After the monitoring team said earlier this summer that it had to delay scheduled timelines for policy revisions for the Office of Professional Responsibility, which oversees Internal Affairs investigations, because of the unit’s “organizational deficiencies,” assistant city solicitor Kristin Blumer said Tuesday that “the work is ongoing.” She said the parties are still working to develop policies on how to classify complaints and a process for how those complaints can be shared with the Civilian Review Board.

Among changes that have been implemented, she said internal affairs investigators are now tapped to investigate cases across the department, whereas before they were confined to a specific district, which had the potential to lead to bias. She said the office also has a new “refusal form” for investigators to file if they know an officer under investigation, so they can disclose that. Attorneys are also now available to investigators, she said.

An attorney for the Justice Department said it’s pleased with some progress but “remain concerned” about the office’s ability to investigate allegations. The office has not initiated any internal affairs investigations as a result of Harlem Park or the Gun Trace Task Force cases, the attorney said.

Officials also spoke about enhancements to policies for how officers respond to calls involving individuals with behavioral health problems. The department said 194 officers have been trained, and hopes to have at least 30 percent of all officers receiving the training, which is considered nationally a best practice.

Members of the monitoring team and the judge have praised police department leaders for embracing reforms but expressed concerns about whether they have adequate technology.

Recent studies required under the consent decree have found significant deficiencies in technology, including siloed data systems. Baltimore police officials said they continue to work with Gartner Consulting to improve and integrate technology systems.

The next quarterly public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 10.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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