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Baltimore’s top cop embraces federal overhaul of police, the last of Obama reforms

Court-enforced reform package follows a year-long investigation that began with one notorious death.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

Sweeping reform is coming to the Baltimore Police Department after city leaders signed off on a settlement with the Department of Justice on Thursday morning.

The agreement will put cameras in all police detention vans such as the one in which Freddie Gray died in 2015, Mayor Catherine Pugh said at a press conference to unveil the deal. It will also change the department’s guidelines for use of force, mandate de-escalation techniques over force whenever possible, and provide specialized trained in dealing with mental health issues.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in on the same day Baltimore boiled over into civil unrest over Gray’s death, lauded the effort that produced Thursday’s agreement.

“This city was committed even then to working on this, and everyone was looking for the best way to make it happen,” said Lynch. After her staff spent the next year investigating the department, “you learned what we had learned: that BPD had engaged in a pattern of conduct that violated the Constitution, and that this pattern had eroded the trust of the community.”

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“I know these were difficult findings to hear. These were difficult findings to lay upon a city that had already been through so much. But they were what our investigation found, and I have to say that no one in this city ever flinched from those findings,” Lynch said. Thursday’s deal will “remedy the violations we uncovered [and] heal the tension in the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and the community it serves.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis joined Pugh and Lynch in praising the deal.

“I want to thank a group of people that will benefit as much as any other group from this consent decree, and that’s the Baltimore Police Department,” Davis said.

All three leaders stressed that the key to the agreement’s success lies in citizens, officers, and federal observers remaining engaged with the reforms, and with each other. But Davis went further, calling out worrywarts who suggest police reform undermines law enforcement.

“There’s a conversation out there whether or not a crime fight and a consent decree reform effort can exist at the same time,” Davis said. “Of course they can, and I have no doubt when we emerge from this we will be better crime fighters and we will have better relationships with our community.”

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The court-enforced deal, known as a consent decree, signals that the department’s failings are serious, widespread, and complex. When DOJ investigations uncover the need for milder reforms, the department’s Civil Rights Division will sometimes strike a “memorandum of agreement,” which does not impose active enforcement and oversight by a court.

It is an important difference. Active enforcement by a court is necessary to make good on the promise of the agreement Pugh, Lynch, and police leaders announced Thursday. Previous waves of reform in the department have failed to deliver real changes on the ground.

The agreement intends to address the deep-set culture of harassment, brutality, and civil rights violations documented by DOJ investigators in a report released last August. Baltimore’s self-guided efforts at redressing the department’s sins had stalled, the investigators found, because veteran officers in leadership positions had remained committed to upholding the old way of doing business, despite internal policy changes. Once a judge approves Thursday’s deal, reforms will have the force of law behind them.

Baltimore’s police are flagrant in their disregard for civilians’ rights, investigators found while embedded within the department for months. Officers were told to invent probable cause to justify unwarranted stops and searches.

The department systematically harassed people standing on public property who were committing no crime, a practice institutionalized throughout the city by commanders’ instructions to patrol units. Thousands of pedestrian stops were not legally justified, and yielded citations or arrests less than 4 percent of the time. The report depicts a department so obsessed with low-level enforcement priorities that it warped the mission of units intended to combat serious offenses. Office posters in three precincts boasted that a division ostensibly tasked with violent crime investigations was instead “Striking fear into loiters (sic) City-Wide,” for example.

Investigators also found shocking instances of violent and humiliating treatment of civilians by Baltimore police. Officers conducted strip searches on public streets, searched a woman’s anal cavity on a sidewalk after pulling her over for a broken tail light, and routinely used fists, tasers, and pepper spray against juveniles accused of loitering. The department’s internal accountability systems for such abuses routinely dismissed complaints and papered over misconduct, according to the DOJ report.

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The investigation documenting the BPD’s failings across multiple categories of serious and petty crime enforcement might never have happened had it not been for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked federal investigators to probe the department weeks after his death and the ensuing civil unrest in the city.

All of the officers charged in the alleged “rough ride” that broke Gray’s spine in 2015 were either acquitted or saw their charges dropped. But the case prompted DOJ to root around in the department’s inner workings for months, yielding the comprehensive evidence driving reform today. Gray’s death, like so many others involving police, is the kind of incident that is often dismissed as the result of a few bad apples.

That old mindset is likely to return with President-elect Donald Trump’s swearing-in, as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) looks to replace Lynch and restore the hands-off deference to local police officials that was typical of federal oversight prior to the Obama era.

The political transition looms even over this last consent decree of the outgoing administration. Such agreements require an independent monitor to interface between the court that enforces the deal and the officials and citizens working to make it a reality.

City and federal staff will immediately begin working to select that monitoring team, DOJ officials said in Baltimore on Thursday. But that process involves waves of application, review, and recommendation before a judge ultimately makes the selection — steps which will take longer than the final week remaining before Inauguration Day.