A.G. Sessions wants to pause BPD consent decree, in spite of Baltimore leaders' opinions

City Paper

In a statement signed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions released Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice demanded a 90-day halt on police reform, including the consent decree here in Baltimore.

The halt hinges on Trump's Feb. 9 executive order tied to "preventing violence against federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement officers"—a frequent rallying point by the new law-and-order-touting administration.

Not long after the statement, both Mayor Catherine Pugh and Commissioner Kevin Davis released their own statements saying they opposed this pause and would like the consent decree to move along as quickly as possible.

This morning, Davis held a press conference tied to the consent decree delay, reiterating his position.

"We are ready to roll with the consent decree," he said 

Davis then took a moment to stress that a major part of the consent decree that hasn't got as much press is it will afford Baltimore Police officers additional "training and technology."

And Davis pointed to the many reforms the BPD has put into place separate from the consent decree, including body-worn cameras, a revised use-of-force and Taser policy, a transparency page on the BPD website, and more.

"Those reforms are going to take place no matter what" the DOJ says, Davis said.

To counter Sessions' assertions that consent decrees are not necessary, Davis also noted, however, that the consent decree is important because it "binds" both the commissioner and mayor to "getting reforms enacted" based on a "timeline that is not necessarily [their] own," all overseen by a federal judge.

The statement put out by the Department of Justice acknowledges collaboration between federal and local law enforcement but also declares "it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies."

It's a rather twisted take on "states' rights," something the Trump administration has played fast and loose with rhetorically: Issues such as trans rights have been left up to the states while the federal government has threatened withholding funding from states if they offer sanctuary cities and has also come out strongly against states for the legalization of cannabis.

Baltimore officials have been prepping for the Trump regime and the specific threat that Jeff Sessions offers up for awhile now. The specter of Trump's reactionary law-and-order approach loomed at a Baltimore City Council Public Safety Committee hearing on Nov. 22, a couple weeks after the election.

There, everybody in attendance—from a group of vocal activists attending to ask Davis about aerial surveillance and the consent decree to many councilpersons to the commissioner himself—agreed on one thing: The impending presidency of Donald Trump was troubling and so was soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump announced as his nominee on Nov. 18.

Davis made an oblique nod to his concern about Trump and company as it pertained the consent decree, and many councilpersons made their opposition to Trump known, particularly Brandon Scott.

"I don't want an Attorney General who calls someone like me, 'boy,'" Scott said, bitterly referring to Thomas Figures, a black assistant U.S. attorney who testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee back in 1986 that Sessions had called him "boy" (Figures also testified that Sessions said that the Ku Klux Klan were "OK until [he] found out they smoked pot").

That Nov. 22 public hearing was, overall, typically fractious, with activists heckling Davis and challenging some of the usual shenanigans employed to keep them from speaking, but it was also, in a sense, mildly encouraging: Everybody there was worried about Trump, even the Baltimore Police.

In February, Sessions referred to the Ferguson and Chicago consent decrees as "pretty anecdotal and not so scientifically based" and also admitted that he hadn't actually read them.

At about the same time Sessions was dismissing consent decrees and even the very idea there is large-scale systemic problems with the police, seven Baltimore police officers were indicted on racketeering charges and accused of lying about overtime and stealing money from citizens—one of the indicted officers is even accused of dealing drugs himself. You couldn't find a better example of why police oversight is important than these claims that seven Baltimore police officers were essentially running amok, terrorizing Baltimore.

But for Sessions, these kinds police are dismissed as exceptions ("bad actors" is the phrase Sessions has used), though there is also the DOJ report from Baltimore which specifically refers to the problems as "systemic"—the word appears 20 times in the document.

At Tuesday's press conference, Davis tied the expansiveness of the consent decree to BPD's involvement: "I would argue that one of the many reasons why their report was so lengthy, so inclusive is because they received the full cooperation of the Baltimore Police Department. We know we need to get better."

He also expressed frustration with this pause again because it was the BPD along with the mayor who "accelerated by choice" the negotiations for the consent decree to reach an agreement on Jan. 12, days before Trump's inauguration.

"I want to say to the community that the police department is absolutely dedicated to the consent decree process—there's no backroom deals, no sleight of hand...I want this consent decree," he said.

This afternoon, Mayor Pugh appeared with Davis in another press conference and said the city is "ready to move ahead" with consent decree and did not want to wait 90 days.

Jill Carter, the Director of the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Management, said Tuesday she wasn’t concerned about the fate of the consent decree. She isn't surprised that Davis said that the Baltimore Police Department was committed to change.

"That's good to hear and that's what he's consistently said," Carter said.

Carter believes James K. Bredar, the judge overseeing the process, is so committed to the consent decree that he would not allow the 90-day pause to stand.

Her main concern is the fate of civilian participation in the Baltimore Police Department. The Civilian Review Board falls under Carter's office, and she said it's been woefully underused and underfunded.

"What is the extent to where civilian oversight will be allowed," she asked.

She pointed to the case of seven Baltimore officers now facing federal charges as evidence.

"Those issues could have been addressed at a much earlier stage, had the Civilian Review Board been able to operate effectively. Those officers had prior allegations but nothing happened and that highlights the need for civilian oversight."

Additional reporting by Lisa Snowden-McCray

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