Department of Justice begins community discussion of police department far away from Sandtown

Last night, the University of Baltimore's Angelos Law Center hosted what was purported by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to be an open town-hall discussion about police misconduct in Baltimore City. Local news stations prepped microphones, checked audio levels, and set white balances on their cameras as members of the community slowly filed into the room.

F. Michael Higginbotham of the University of Baltimore School of Law started the night's discussion. "The Department of Justice is committed to the notion of justice and the rule of law and see to it that it is applied on the city, state, and national level," he said. "Tonight's town hall gives you all the opportunity to learn about the Department of Justice's investigation and to provide information."

He introduced Vanita Gupta, who serves as the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the DOJ. Previously, she held positions at the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP legal defense fund.

"This is not really the Department of Justice's meeting," Gupta said. "This is the community's meeting."

In her visits to Baltimore in May, following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, she met with various community leaders, she said. "We returned with the Attorney General and met with the Gray family, line officers, and the chain of command at the police department. We then opened up an investigation of the Baltimore Police Department."

Using words like "thorough" and "fair," she stressed the fact that the investigation may take a considerable amount of time. The investigation seeks to uncover whether or not there are patterns of excessive uses of force, illegal stops, searches, and arrests, and discriminatory policing. Right when she asked the community to "engage" and "be patient," a baby started to cry. Who knows what troubled the child, but the crying seemed to signify and reflect the mood of the city as a whole.

"The process matters," she added, subtly echoing and arguably marginalizing the "Black Lives Matter" chant shouted in Baltimore and various other cities in the United States during this protest movement.

Then she gave the floor to Tim Mygatt, who is part of the special counsel for the civil rights division of the DOJ: "We're going to interview the officer on the street all the way up to the commissioner so that we can hear exactly how policing is working, from their perspective within the Baltimore Police Department." From thousands of requested documents, a data analysis will be conducted to show what goes on within the police department in the hope to uncover if there have been "systemic violations of the Constitution."

If violations are found, a consent decree will be issued, which will be overseen by a federal court. It ensures the accountability of the DOJ, the Baltimore Police Department, and the community. It would be composed of public reports, changes in policy and procedures of the police, and a call for community oversight in the form of a community police commission.

"When we open a pattern or practice investigation, it's not just because of one thing that happened. It's because of something we've heard over a period of time," Mygatt said. "We believe there's cause to open an investigation to determine whether or not there are systemic violations taking place. So it's not just a single moment of unrest within the city."

When it came time for members of the community to speak out about their interactions with police, Mygatt asked members of the press not to listen in on the testimonials or use notes as part of a news story unless permission was given. And so news crews broke down their tripod setups and the real conversations happened off camera.

Cards with different color and number combinations were issued to indicate meeting areas throughout the building, where people could share their stories with the DOJ representatives. Once Mygatt left the lectern, people formed long lines or gathered in small circles as the representatives took notes in haste as community members shared their stories. It was less like a proper town-hall meeting, where people voice their concerns, give personal anecdotes, and generate sincere discourse between the community, the DOJ, and the police publicly, and more like a second meeting. Many broke off into groups to talk about the issues at large and express dissatisfaction with the meeting.

The Angelos Law Center is located in Mid-Town Belvedere, not far from the Station North Arts and Culture District, and so, the location of the meeting itself neglects the neighborhoods that are most affected by the police misconduct being investigated. A town-hall meeting in the Western district would have been more appropriate. Members of the community would have had the convenience of speaking about interactions with the police in their neighborhood as opposed to having to go to another district. Representatives from the DOJ also would have had the opportunity to start right where these problems begin.

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