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What was Rawlings-Blake waiting for?

Today, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the Department of Justice to conduct a full-scale civil rights investigation of Baltimore's police department, the kind of thorough probe that, in other cities, has led to court-mandated reforms. What took her so long? The need for something more than the "collaborative review" she invited last fall after The Sun's Mark Puente detailed incident after incident of police brutality was evident from the start. But if the more than 100 cases of settlements and judgments the city paid over five years wasn't enough to convince her that half-measures wouldn't do, the death of Freddie Gray should have been a wake-up call. Yet instead of announcing this step when it might have done some good to calm the community, the mayor waited until after the crisis had passed.

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's accounting of how police treated Freddie Gray on the morning of April 12 raises real concerns about whether there is a "pattern and practice" of civil rights violations by the Baltimore police. If Ms. Mosby's account is correct, officers had no probable cause to chase Gray when he ran after making eye contact with one of them, and no probable cause to restrain, search and arrest him. One of the officers now facing charges in the incident is questioning Ms. Mosby's assertion that the knife Gray was carrying was legal, but that's irrelevant. The police had no business looking in his pockets in the first place. Six officers were involved in Gray's arrest, and if any of them found something odd about a man being arrested in such a manner, handcuffed and shackled, placed face-down and unrestrained in the back of a police van and ignored when he requested medical attention, they didn't do anything about it.

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Was all of this news to Mayor Rawlings-Blake when Ms. Mosby stepped in front of the microphones in War Memorial Plaza on Friday morning? Not at all. On April 21, the day the Justice Department announced a probe specifically into Gray's death, her spokesman said, "The mayor as recently as a few days ago said one of her frustrations with trying to piece this together is that we can't seem to establish probable cause. All we have from the police documents so far is that [Gray] made eye contact or he had a knife. From her years serving as a public defender, having a knife is not necessarily probable cause to chase or arrest someone. The information we have so far is clearly insufficient as well in establishing why he was pursued in the first place."

Mayors are typically reluctant to have the Department of Justice conduct a civil rights review of this sort because it can lead to them losing control of their police departments. But Ms. Rawlings-Blake needs to confront the reality that the department is in fundamental ways out of her control to begin with. She brought Police Commissioner Anthony Batts to Baltimore almost three years ago with a mission to reform the department and heal rifts between police and the community. She initially shrugged off Mr. Puente's reporting as covering old cases that predated her tenure — even as a fresh incident of a Baltimore officer beating a man at a crowded bus stop hit the news when the victim's lawyer released surveillance camera footage to the media.

If the facts of Freddie Gray's case did not immediately convince her that the internal reform process Mr. Batts was pursuing was insufficient, the community's reaction to his death should have. We should set aside the riots from our consideration, as they weren't really about Freddie Gray to begin with, but the peaceful protests that preceded and followed them should have told her something. It's hard to think of the last time the city saw that kind of sustained and focused activism. The public was clamoring for some tangible response from the city to Gray's death — including, in several cases, specific calls by community leaders and elected officials such as City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young for the Department of Justice to do precisely what Ms. Rawlings-Blake has belatedly requested.

Now that she has asked, it's up for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to make good on her promise to "come up with solutions real solutions ... to improve this city." A civil rights review is a massive undertaking, and the department doesn't say yes to all requests. It needs to say yes to this one.

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