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Call in the feds [Editorial]

The decision last week by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts to call in federal investigators to probe allegations of excessive use of force and other misconduct by Baltimore police is as embarrassing as it was unavoidable. No city attempting to polish its image as an attractive place to live and work wants to admit having a problem with police brutality it can't handle. But since a six-month investigation by The Sun uncovered evidence of a dysfunctional department seemingly inimical to reform, it's been apparent that the city needs help.

The Sun investigation revealed systemic problems of lax record keeping regarding citizen lawsuits, false or misleading police incident reports, failure to remove from the force officers repeatedly accused of misconduct and an almost complete lack of transparency and accountability on the part of departmental supervisors and higher-ups. Meanwhile, most of the victims of misconduct were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. The charges against them were usually dropped, and the city ended up paying millions of dollars in judgments and settlements of lawsuits brought against officers.

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Yet though most victims of brutality were eventually exonerated, so, effectively, were the officers who committed such acts. Some of the officers detailed in the report by The Sun's Mark Puente were targeted by as many as five separate lawsuits, yet nobody in the department seemed to notice a pattern or practice of excessive use of force. Despite their appalling records of misconduct, they were allowed to remain on the force, and in some cases they were even promoted. The failure of their superiors to hold them accountable for misconduct may well have convinced them that they could break the law with impunity.

The department paid a heavy price for allowing these officers to remain in their jobs. Not only was the city paying to settle lawsuits with tax dollars that might have been used for better training and recruitment, the department lost the trust of the very people it was supposed to serve and protect. For years police have been complaining that local residents are uncooperative with investigators. But what would motivate anyone to tell police about crime suspects in their neighborhoods when the department seems so uninterested in punishing the wrongdoers in its own ranks?

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The head of the Baltimore police union says the problems with the department are not systemic and that there's no need for federal involvement. But the problems identified in The Sun's investigation are so pervasive and go so deep that it's impossible not to suspect the cases reported so far represent only the tip of the iceberg. For every citizen who alleged brutality at the hands of an officer, there are doubtless others who remained silent.

Why didn't the supervisors of officers repeatedly accused of misconduct ever connect the dots? Did they never become suspicious of the bureaucratic evasions or outright lies that filled the official reports submitted by officers who were regularly sued for misconduct? What of the fellow officers who witnessed this brutality but said nothing? Given that so many in the department must have turned a blind eye to what was going on, it's hard to believe that the problem was the work of a few bad apples rather than a failure of the department as a whole.

The fact that so many questions remain unanswered shows why an independent, outside investigation is essential. Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Batts say they welcome a federal review, but in reality they have little choice in the matter because the department clearly has lost all credibility to investigate itself. Mr. Batts instituted a number of reforms since taking over the department in 2012, but there's obviously a lot more work to be done.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights division has opened more than 20 investigations into local police departments in recent years. In Baltimore investigators will likely focus first on officers who have a history of discrimination or excessive use of force. Then the feds will set up a monitoring system to ensure that the reforms the department agrees to are actually carried out, including putting in place systems to increase transparency, improve police-community relations and develop more effective recruitment, training and supervision of officers.

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Ever since the police-involved shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, allegations of excessive use of force by officers have been in the national spotlight. It's unfortunate that the Baltimore brand is again suffering from an association with lawless violence. But if the city is ever to become a place that takes pride in its institutions, it must overcome the culture of police misconduct and corruption that threatens to drag it down. An independent probe of police misconduct is an indispensable first step toward restoring Charm City's tarnished image.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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