Baltimoreans convened yesterday at a federal courthouse downtown to make their voices heard about a pending consent decree to reform the Baltimore Police Department. Amid their testimony, attorneys from the Trump administration’s Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund moved in opposite directions to influence the fate of the binding agreement.
Before nearly four dozen people from Baltimore took the podium to speak on the proposed sweeping reform package for the Baltimore Police Department, an attorney from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department (DOJ) made a controversial request of Judge James Bredar of the U.S. District Court of Maryland. Per WBAL’s Robert Lang:
“I am bound to convey that the attorney general has some grave concerns about this particular decree and whether it will in fact achieves goal of improving policing, and improving public safety and strengthening civil rights,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore on behalf of Sessions. “We want to make sure any remedy will help, rather than hinder, public safety.”
After he spoke, dozens of Baltimore residents, including two mothers of black men who were shot by city police officers, reportedly gave their takes on the 227-page agreement negotiated by city and federal attorneys during the Obama administration. While feedback was generally supportive, some expressed doubts about whether those who crafted the consent decree had gotten enough feedback from community members.
At the end of the hearing, Gore asked Judge Bredar to delay his decision about whether to sign the agreement for at least 30 days so the DOJ could further review it. His request came less than a day after the same judge denied the Justice Department’s motion to delay the public hearing for 90 days, and only days after Sessions ordered reviews of all existing and pending consent decrees for police departments across the country. The attorney general has expressed skepticism about federal intervention in local police affairs in the past.
Sessions’ pushback against court-ordered reform in Baltimore stirred frustration among the city’s leaders, including the police commissioner himself, who earlier this week called the attorney general’s move to delay Thursday’s public hearing “a punch in the gut.”
The DOJ notably agreed to move forward with the consent decree in February, when one of its attorneys affirmed as much to Bredar in a hearing.
Police, who would have to reshape their policies for officer training, conducting stops and seizures, investigating sexual assault cases and many other areas if Judge Bredar signs the consent decree, have been supportive of the agreement. The present call for reform followed a thorough DOJ investigation of the department that discovered deep-rooted problems with discriminatory policing, unconstitutional treatment of citizens and poor oversight of officers. The department began investigating police after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in April 2015.
Judge Bredar didn’t respond to Gore’s request to delay for another month.
Another legal effort would aim to block the DOJ’s review of the consent decree. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) yesterday filed a motion asking Bredar to let it intervene in the DOJ’s review on behalf of a community activist and a Maryland nonprofit. The LDF’s goal is to push the court to move forward in signing the binding agreement, regardless of whether Sessions’ Justice Department supports it.
“While the DOJ may want to walk away from the difficult work of policing reform, LDF isn’t going anywhere,” said the group’s president and director-counsel. “Now is the time to begin implementing the consent decree, not to abandon it.”
Once Bredar signs the consent decree, it becomes a binding document.