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DOJ backpedals on Baltimore police reform

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he is "disappointed" that the Department of Justice requested a 90-day pause in the consent decree process. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

The Trump administration's Department of Justice is asking for a 90-day delay in the implementation of its consent decree with Baltimore over police department reform so that it can have time to determine how the agreement jives with its emphasis on public safety. If its priorities are what the DOJ claims they are in its motion this week, we can offer an answer right now.

If, in fact, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to ensure that consent decrees like the one in Baltimore "advance the safety and protection of the public, promote officer safety and morale, protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public, respect local control of law enforcement, are rooted in timely and reliable statistics on crime and criminals, and do not impede recruitment and training of officers," then the one signed by Mayor Catherine Pugh and the Obama administration's justice department should give him no cause for concern.

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The public is made demonstrably less safe by the distrust that has built over the years between the community and police department. It hinders cooperation with investigations and discourages witnesses from testifying. That impedes the law enforcement system's ability to put dangerous criminals behind bars and fosters a culture of street justice that further endangers the public.

A lack of respect for police officers does not make them safer. And the kinds of egregious and unconstitutional orders the DOJ documented in its investigation of the Baltimore police department do not foster high morale. Few police officers are excited to violate residents' civil rights or make arrests for the sake of statistics. That doesn't do much for recruitment, either, and the bad practices the DOJ found show clear flaws in departmental training for both patrol officers and supervisors. The Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police used to complain about it all the time.

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There can be little question that efforts to curb the abuses the DOJ documented — from excessive use of force to violations of First Amendment protections for free speech and assembly — would "protect and respect" the civil rights of the public.

Baltimore's mayor, City Council, legislative delegation and police department support moving forward with the consent decree, so it is clearly consistent with local control of law enforcement.

If, on the other hand, the Trump administration is looking to force American law enforcement back toward "tough on crime" zero-tolerance policing practices, as the president suggested during the campaign, it is going to run into a problem with crafting policies that are based on "timely and reliable statistics on crime and criminals." Tactics like stop-and-frisk searches and strict enforcement of nuisance crimes have been tried here and elsewhere, and the results aren't encouraging. In New York City, where stop-and-frisk searches exploded in frequency under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, officers had to stop more than 1,000 people to recover one gun. DOJ investigators found a similar pattern here, but with a twist: Officers were actually significantly more likely to find weapons or drugs when they searched white people — either as part of a pedestrian or vehicle stop — than when they searched African-Americans. That is to say, police wasted tremendous amounts of time searching black Baltimoreans, alienating huge swaths of the population without fostering public safety.

The city's record with arrests tells a similar story. At the height of zero-tolerance policing, when the department was routinely making arrests for nuisance crimes like loitering, officers logged more than 100,000 arrests in a single year, or nearly one for every six city residents. But a funny thing happened when the department moved away from that strategy and began arresting far fewer people: Crime went down, and murders reached their lowest level in decades.

Regardless, the fact that the justice department is asking for time to review to this agreement after previously having assured the judge in this case, James K. Bredar, that it remained committed to it raises doubts about just how vigorously it will enforce the terms of the consent decree. Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis may say they remain steadfast in their desire for reform regardless of the Trump administration's attitudes, but without the resources of the DOJ to look over their shoulders, we worry about how effectively they will be able to monitor the department's progress. And without the DOJ's independence, we worry that the public won't buy into the process.

Our best hope may lie with Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, who has had a front-row seat to the Baltimore police department's problems through multiple police commissioners and mayors — and whose office is now prosecuting seven officers who are accused of crimes that exemplify the department's worst failings. His nomination to be deputy attorney general advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. We hope he will be confirmed and will persuade his new boss of just how crucial the DOJ's involvement is in places like Baltimore.

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