DOJ, city announce agreement on consent decree

After an eleventh-hour scramble to reach an agreement before president-elect Donald J. Trump takes the White House, the City of Baltimore has finalized a consent decree with the Department of Justice to implement sweeping, historic police reforms.

Among the city's considerable obligations under the agreement: establishing a Community Oversight Task Force to monitor police conduct; prioritizing "de-escalation techniques" in lieu of excessive force; transporting detainees "in a manner that keeps them safe"; and investigating sexual assault claims "thoroughly and without gender bias." You can read the full agreement here.

"The decree's requirements focus on building community trust, creating a culture of community and problem-oriented policing, prohibiting unlawful stops and arrests, preventing discriminatory policing and excessive force, ensuring public and officer safety, enhancing officer accountability and making needed technological upgrades," the DOJ said in a statement.

At a press conference announcing the agreement Thursday morning, Mayor Catherine Pugh called it a "great day" and thanked community activists for their input. She acknowledged that the BPD "has begun some critical reforms" like body cameras and in-van surveillance. But, she said, "there is much more to be done." As for footing the bill, Pugh said frankly, "We don't know what the cost is going to be."

Mayor Pugh was joined by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, among others, in announcing the agreement.

The 227-page consent decree marks an important step in implementing police reforms demanded by the Department of Justice after a damning report filed in August, galvanized by the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, found a pattern and practice of conduct that violates the Constitution.

In negotiations since August, the agreement has now been unanimously approved by the city's spending board. Next, the deal needs to be OK'd by a U.S. District Court Judge. An independent monitor will then be assigned to oversee the reform process. Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said the DOJ would also produce regular reports, available to the public, to assess progress. 

The decree builds on the DOJ's 163-page report into the Baltimore police, which detailed years of officers making arrests without probable cause, disproportionately stopping and arresting black residents without justification, and using excessive force. It also found serious shortcomings in the BPD's handling of sexual assault investigations, and a culture of retaliation against those using "constitutionally protected expression." These patterns, the DOJ concluded, have been underpinned by "systemic deficiencies" in the force's training, supervision, and accountability structures.

Lynch, who ordered the DOJ's probe into the Baltimore Police, praised the city's response to the "difficult to hear" conclusions: "No one in this city has ever flinched from these findings" she said, calling for "persistent feedback and input from the community."

Back in August, at a press conference announcing those findings, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake predicted that making the reforms a reality, based on costs in other cities, could cost as much as $10 million dollars per year. Mayor Pugh, just 33 days into her term, made no such predictions and avoided citing figures. "I'm not interested right now in what the price tag is," she said.

The Department of Justice, the Baltimore police, and the Mayor's office presented a united front Thursday. "We found your team to be just awesome," Pugh told Lynch during the press conference, and said Deputy AG Gupta had become "like a sister" after the months-long negotiating process.

But Baltimore's project is less likely to find such bosom buddies in the next administration. It remains to be seen how implementing the reforms could be undercut by the Trump administration and his pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who has been plainly skeptical about the use of consent decrees. Around two dozen federal investigations into the police practices have gone forward under the Obama administration.

Lynch, in her last week as Attorney General, said the consent decree, as a legally binding document, would "live on past this administration."

But when asked whether the Trump administration would be obliged to throw any money behind these government-ordered reforms, the answer was less than clear. Pugh said she'd cross that bridge when she came to it, saying she was "ready to sit down" with the government to discuss funding, once the city had crunched its numbers.

In the absence of federal cash, Tessa Hill Aston, President of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP, welcomed the idea of private sector or nonprofit investment. "It doesn't need to be government money. We have to look outside the box to where the dollars may be."

The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank and file officers, said in a statement that they had not been invited to participate in the negotiations.

"Despite continued assurances by representatives of the Department of Justice that our organization would be included in the consent decree negotiations, no request to participate was ever forthcoming and we were not involved in the process," the statement said. The FOP also said that it hadn't been given an advance copy of the agreement, and promised a full response once it has.

Copyright © 2018, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
73°