Federal Judge Signs Off on Court-Ordered Reforms for Baltimore Police Department

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It’s official: The Baltimore Police Department is now bound by court order to overhaul a broad range of its investigative practices and departmental policies.

Judge James Bredar of the U.S. District Court of Maryland today approved the 227-page agreement negotiated between city and federal attorneys this past fall and winter. In an official order, Bredar declined the U.S. Department of Justice’s request for additional time to review it, as requested on Thursday during a public hearing.

“The time for negotiating the agreement is over,” Bredar wrote. “The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not.”

The reforms contained in the document aim to fix major problems in the Baltimore Police Department identified by the Department of Justice in an investigatory report released last August, including unconstitutional stops and seizures, excessive use of force, discriminatory policing strategies and mishandling of sexual assault investigations. In his order issued today, Bredar referred to the report as “deeply troubling.”

The Department of Justice, at that time led by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, launched its investigation in spring of 2015 shortly after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

City and federal attorneys spent months hashing out the terms of the agreement, eventually reaching a finalized version in January. In February, Bredar, who’s overseeing the consent decree’s implementation in Baltimore, issued a request for public comment, soliciting feedback from Baltimore residents by mail and online and at an in-person hearing in the federal courthouse downtown on Thursday, April 6.

This past Monday, three days before the scheduled hearing, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions shocked city officials by having his staff request a 90-day delay of the meeting. He also said the Justice Department would review all existing and pending consent decrees binding more than a dozen police departments around the country to undertake reforms.

Sessions has historically expressed doubt about the effectiveness of court-ordered police reform, a strategy used heavily under the Obama administration to mandate change in local police departments around the country that were found to have deep-rooted issues.

In a statement, Sessions today expressed disapproval of Bredar’s ruling. “This decree was negotiated during a rushed process by the previous administration and signed only days before they left office,” he said. “While the Department of Justice continues to fully support police reform in Baltimore, I have grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.”

City officials spoke out against the motion to delay earlier this week, with police spokesman T.J. Smith saying additional waiting would compromise public trust and Mayor Catherine Pugh and other Baltimore lawmakers saying they were ready to move forward.

On Wednesday, Bredar denied the DOJ’s motion, calling it “untimely” and “highly unusual” and saying it disregarded the scheduling efforts the court and the public made ahead of the meeting. The hearing then went on as planned, though a DOJ attorney who appeared there again requested at least 30 more days to review the agreement. Bredar swiftly denied that motion in less than one day.

Bredar wrote in his approval memo issued today that “whether the proposed decree succeeds in all its goals will be known only in hindsight.” However, he characterized the agreement as “comprehensive, detailed, and precise,” and said “it appears to be balanced and well-calibrated to achieve the parties’ shared, jointly-stated objectives.”

Factoring in the public comments the court received, the points made by the attorneys who drafted it, “and reflecting on the certainty that there must be effective and constitutional policing in order for the City of Baltimore to thrive, the Court determines the proposed decree is in the public interest,” Bredar wrote.

The agreement took effect immediately after Bredar signed it. Until he verifies that Baltimore police have implemented all required reforms, the consent decree will remain in effect.

Mayor Pugh commended Judge Bredar’s decision in a statement, saying that with his signature, “the City of Baltimore will continue to move forward in reforming the Baltimore Police Department and building the bond of trust that must exist between the community and our police officers.”

Police spokesman Jeremy Silbert said in a statement that the department expects the consent decree process “will lead us to the goal we all share: a Baltimore Police Department that leads the progress of the policing profession.”

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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