DOJ: Reforms in Baltimore will withstand presidential change

AP News
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Posted: Feb 01, 2017 4:09 PM

BALTIMORE (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department assured a federal judge Wednesday that a proposed agreement to reform the Baltimore Police Department will withstand the change in presidents.

Civil Rights Division lawyer Timothy Mygatt said the agreement with the city was negotiated cooperatively and outlines a proven process for improving police practices and repairing systemic problems that have long plagued the police agency.

"It endures over administrations. It endures across shifting political winds," Mygatt said. "It allows there to be surety for all parties involved that there's going to be consistency."

U.S. District Judge James Bredar said he appreciated the assurance as he considers approving the consent decree. He said political winds change, but court orders do not.

"In this courtroom we don't operate on a four-year cycle," he said.

The three-hour hearing was the first on the agreement announced Jan. 12, eight days before Republican President Donald Trump succeeded Democrat Barack Obama. More hearings are likely, including one for public comment, before the deal is finalized. Once the judge is satisfied that the sweeping reforms are fair, adequate and reasonable, he will enter the decree, making it court-enforceable.

Trump's nominee for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, hinted last month that he'd be less eager than Obama's Justice Department to prod city police departments into consent decrees to resolve allegations of pervasive civil rights violations. He said he did not consider it fair to criticize an entire department for what might be the actions of just a few.

Wednesday's hearing exposed one sticking point, a provision in Maryland law prohibiting disclosure of public employee personnel records.

Mygatt said the Justice Department and a court-appointed monitor should be able to identify problematic police officers. The proposed agreement would enable them to seek a court order for the release of city personnel records, but doesn't specify what might trigger such a request. Bredar asked the lawyers to propose some new language by Feb. 10. Without it, he said, "there is no consent decree."

Mayor Catherine Pugh told the judge she's confident Baltimore can afford to implement the reforms. She didn't provide dollar figures, but told reporters later that she has put money in the city budget for implementation, expects a Ford Foundation grant and is seeking state funds.

"I'm really confident that we'll be able to get this done," she said. "I want to get this signed so we can move forward."

The proposed decree would cap the monitor's fees at just under $1.5 million a year.

The agreement stems from a federal investigation of police practices sparked by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young, black man who was fatally injured in police custody after running from officers in his neighborhood. It mandates changes in the most fundamental aspects of daily police work, including stops, searches and arrests.

After Gray's death, former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the Justice Department to launch an investigation to rebuild public trust.

In a report last August, the Justice Department found that officers routinely stopped people in poor, black neighborhoods for dubious reasons, and unlawfully arrested residents merely for speaking in ways police deemed disrespectful.

The consent decree discourages arrests for loitering or littering, requiring a supervisor to sign off on any request to take someone into custody for a minor infraction. It also mandates basic training for making stops and searches.

It commands officers to use de-escalation techniques, thoroughly investigate sexual assault claims and send specially trained units to distress calls involving people with mental illness.

Police will not be able to stop someone just because the person is in a high-crime area, or just because the person is trying to avoid contact with an officer, according to the document.

The agreement also lays out policies for transporting prisoners like Gray, who suffered a broken neck while riding, handcuffed and shackled without a seatbelt, in the back of a police van. The consent decree requires officers to ensure that prisoners are protected with seat belts and to check on them periodically.