WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Thursday stepped up the pressure on Baltimore officials to reach a deal with the federal government to overhaul the city's police practices, saying "the ball is in the city's court" to conclude negotiations soon.
Lynch, who took office in April 2015 as riots roiled Baltimore after the death of a black man in police custody, said she intends to return to Baltimore in January to give an update on efforts to reach a court-enforceable consent decree.
Her statements seemed intended to publicly push Baltimore toward a resolution and appeared to reflect disappointment in the pace of negotiations.
Though consent decrees can take months to negotiate, the federal government and Baltimore already had reached an agreement in principle by August, when the Justice Department issued a report that identified discriminatory policing practices and pervasive civil rights violations.
The Justice Department is looking to conclude the process by Jan. 20, when the Obama administration ends and Lynch and other leaders will move on — a timeline for completion that remains possible. The city has been provided with each of the sections of the proposed consent decree and has had some of the sections for months, according to a person familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to discuss the ongoing talks and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"At this point, the ball is in the city's court, but we are looking forward to getting a positive response from them on finalizing this consent decree," Lynch said.
Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for the new mayor, Catherine Pugh, said the city was committed to working with the Justice Department. He said the city had already undertaken some of the changes that Washington sought and wanted to see those improvements acknowledged in the report.
"She also wants us to ensure that the consent decree is in the best interest of the people of Baltimore. It's a huge financial commitment attached to this consent decree," McCarthy said.
A consent decree, filed in federal court and overseen by a monitor, often is a road map for changes in fundamental police department practices, such as in how officers use deadly force and carry out traffic stops.
The Justice Department has the ability to sue cities that refuse to reach such an agreement. The government sued Ferguson, Missouri, under similar circumstances earlier this year after the City Council there balked at the overhaul plan, though the two sides ultimately reached a resolution.
"It's good for both parties because it sets forth the framework of what the city has to do. It sets forth the benchmarks the city has to meet," Lynch said at a discussion hosted by Politico.
The Justice Department opened an investigation into Baltimore's police department last year, weeks after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who was injured in a police transport van.
A harshly critical report in August found that Baltimore police officers routinely discriminate against blacks, repeatedly use excessive force and are not adequately held accountable for misconduct.
Jonathan Smith, the former chief of the Justice Department's special litigation section, which conducts investigations like the one into Baltimore, cautioned against reading too much into Lynch's comments. He said it makes sense for the department to look to conclude a major project before the end of the administration, and that a deal was likely very near.
"They're probably extremely close. There's probably a few things left, and she's playing the role of the closer," Smith said.
"She wouldn't do this if they weren't close and she (didn't think) she could close it," he added.
Associated Press writer Juliet Linderman in Baltimore contributed to this report.
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