Young jumps in front on request for federal review of police

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake won praise from clergy and community leaders Friday after calling for a federal investigation into allegations of police brutality — a move that is all but certain to draw added scrutiny on City Hall.

But careful observers noted the request from Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts came hours after another official — City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young — raised his hand to invite the U.S. Department of Justice in for a closer look.

For Young, an 18-year council veteran who has served as its president since 2010, the events represented the latest in a series of recent victories and underscored an important truism in politics: Timing is key.

"He is standing squarely in his role as City Council president," said the Rev. Heber M. Brown III, an African-American activist, commentator and pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore. "I think he has an added layer of responsibility on these issues."

Young sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday, days after The Baltimore Sun published the findings of an investigation that showed the city has faced more than 100 court judgments and settlements since 2011 involving cases related to allegations of police brutality and civil rights violations.

Hours after the letter became public, Batts held a news conference and Rawlings-Blake issued a statement making the same request. The Department of Justice, in response, agreed to look into the department, Batts said.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the timing of the news conference — scheduled late on a Friday — had nothing to do with Young.

The idea, Harris said, was one of several proposals made by the Police Department weeks ago.

"We've always found that whenever we've engaged an outside set of eyes, it's always resulted in good reforms," Harris said.

Young received attention earlier this year for being the first city official to propose legislation requiring body cameras for police as a way to monitor officers' interactions with the public, an idea that also drew significant public notice in the aftermath of concerns over police practices in Ferguson, Mo., where a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen in August.

That proposal, which was criticized — though not flatly dismissed — by Rawlings-Blake, is under review in the council.

Young also managed to steer his preferred candidate into a seat left vacant when former Councilman William H. Cole IV was selected to lead the Baltimore Development Corp. A committee appointed by Young agreed last month to nominate Federal Hill Neighborhood Association President Eric T. Costello over another contender backed by allies of the mayor.

But that effort cut both ways. Young got his candidate approved but has received criticism from community members who believe he rammed Costello through. Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, speculated that part of Young's recent outspokenness on police brutality may be an attempt to distract voters from that controversy.

"He's the focus of a lot of complaints," Crenson said. "This new initiative may help to wipe that out now that he's put himself out in front of the police… as a voice of the people."

Young's letter resulted from an idea developed almost immediately after The Sun's article came out Sunday, an aide said. Several community leaders, including Brown, subsequently called for a federal review of the city police.

"As a concerned citizen and as an elected official who is charged with ensuring equal justice for all citizens, I write to you to request that the Department of Justice conduct a full review of the Baltimore City Police Department's policies, procedures and practices," Young wrote to Holder.

"These disturbing reports of police misconduct serve to further damage the fragile relationship between the city's police officers and citizens," he added.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said that "there are families that have called for this long before" and that the council president has no interest in trying to take credit for being first.

Several community leaders agreed.

"We have been asking for this for 21/2 years, and everyone knows we have," said the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"He's at this particular stage right now where he's being vocal," Witherspoon said of Young, "but we've been addressing this for quite some time."

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