BALTIMORE (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday night held its first public forum since it began an investigation into whether the Baltimore Police Department has habitually violated the civil rights of Baltimore's citizens.
Residents who attended the forum at the University of Baltimore Law School broke up into small groups to speak one-on-one with agency attorneys about their experiences with the police.
"We are going to be very thorough and we are going to be fair," said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which is conducting the investigation. "We will be working from every side to hear from as many voices as we can. From police officers who are on the street, up the chain to the commissioner and mayor and elected officials. But the community has a very important and central role in this process."
The agency opened its investigation in May, shortly after the city erupted in unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from a spinal injury he suffered while in police custody. Gray's death, the most recent symbol of alleged police brutality against African-Americans across the country, prompted widespread outrage, protests and riots in the city.
The Justice Department's investigation will focus on whether the police department engages in a pattern of excessive force; unlawful stops, searches and arrests; and discrimination.
Tim Mygatt, special counsel at the Civil Rights Division who will be leading the probe, explained to residents what the investigation will entail: interviews with police officers and citizens, as well as a review of thousands of documents and extensive data analysis.
Mygatt told residents that the investigation wasn't prompted by Gray's death, though any instance of police misconduct is "a piece of the investigation."
"We don't open an investigation because of one incident," Mygatt said. "It's not just a single incident, it's not just a single event. It's something we're hearing from a whole variety of sources to make sure we have good cause and reasonable cause to investigate."
If the agency finds that the Baltimore police has violated the constitution, the embattled department could face a court-ordered consent decree.
Mygatt invited residents to meet individually with investigators to share their stories, and asked members of the news media not to record, photograph or listen in on those interviews.