After months of negotiations, public input and fine-tuning by lawyers and a federal judge, the fate of a consent decree for the Baltimore Police Department now hangs in the balance due to a review called for by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions’ Justice Department filed a motion in federal court yesterday to “review and assess” the agreement. The motion requests a 90-day delay of a crucial hearing on the consent decree that, if granted, would allow the DOJ months to reconsider whether it will enforce the consent decree.
In its present 227-page form, the agreement aims to fix years’ worth of discriminatory and unconstitutional policing practices identified by the DOJ in a critical investigative report on the police department published last August. Areas affected by the agreed-upon reforms would include officer training practices, community-policing strategies, reviews of officer misconduct, searches and sex assault investigations, among others.
The DOJ investigated the police department following the riots that ensued after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.
Needless to say, after nearly half a year spent by city and federal attorneys at the negotiating table, Mayor Catherine Pugh and Baltimore Police Department leadership were displeased.
“The Baltimore Police Department is continuing to move forward with reforms related to the forthcoming consent decree for the overall progress of the city of Baltimore,” said a statement from Baltimore Police Department chief spokesman T.J. Smith. “Further delays only serve to erode the trust of the public in this process.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh echoed those concerns.
“I, along with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and the citizens of Baltimore, recognize that reforming our police department is long overdue,” she said in a statement last night. “Much has been done to begin the process of building faith between the police department and the community it seeks to serve. Any interruption in moving forward may have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish.”
Days before the motion was filed yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all active or proposed consent decrees affecting police departments across the country. The memo said consent decrees must be checked to ensure they enhance public safety, protect police “safety and morale,” respect civil rights, respect “local control of law enforcement,” are rooted in firm statistics and “do not impede recruitment and training of officers.”
Sessions’ negative feelings about consent decrees were no secret when he was confirmed as DOJ’s head earlier this year. As an Alabama senator for two decades, he championed tough-on-crime strategies while denying the efficacy of federally enforced police reform. Still, the move surprised many due to the Justice Department’s February affirmation that it would proceed with reforms in Baltimore under Sessions and President Donald Trump.
In language in the court motion, Sessions’ Justice Department appears to suggest reforms already undertaken by Baltimore police might be sufficient to align with Trump’s criminal justice plan for police departments: “The City of Baltimore has made progress toward reform on its own and, as a consequence, it may be possible to take these changes into account where appropriate to ensure future compliance while protecting public safety.”
Commissioner Davis has touted the department’s work to fix itself since last August, but at no point has he ever publicly denied a need for federal oversight. Despite Sessions’ attempt to reduce pressure through a delayed implementation of the consent decree, he appears to be at odds with the attorney general.
At a press conference this morning, Davis said police expect the consent decree’s reforms would allow them to better serve the city, and said his department had complied with its federal review. “We are ready to roll,” he said.
If Judge James K. Bredar approves the motion, the public fairness hearing he called for at the U.S. District Courthouse on W. Lombard Street this Thursday would no longer be on the calendar, and we may not hear of the consent decree’s official fate until July.
Baltimore isn’t the only city reeling from Sessions’ review of consent decrees. As The New York Times pointed out, 14 police departments in cities around the country have active police reform agreements negotiated during President Barack Obama’s time as president.
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