A public hearing about a consent decree that would require the Baltimore Police Department to undertake sweeping new reforms will go on as planned, a federal judge in Baltimore ruled on Wednesday.
Less than two days before, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s department set off a firestorm of criticism in the city by asking for a 90-day continuance to delay the hearing in the downtown courthouse so that the DOJ could “review and assesss” the agreement that was already negotiated by city and federal attorneys.
Shortly before the DOJ made filed its motion, Sessions also ordered a review of all pending and active consent decrees for police departments around the United States, acting on his previously known doubts about the effectiveness of court-ordered police reform.
Today, Judge James K. Bredar of the U.S. District Court of Maryland denied the DOJ’s motion, saying it was “untimely” and “highly unusual.” Bredar had already called for the public hearing nearly two months earlier, opening up a public comment period in the weeks beforehand and scheduling an in-person gathering with city residents on Thursday, April 6.
“The Government’s Motion is untimely. To postpone the public hearing at the eleventh hour would be to unduly burden and inconvenience the Court, the other parties, and, most importantly, the public,” Bredar wrote in his motion issued Wednesday.
Explaining his decision, Bredar wrote that Sessions’ department’s request didn’t account for the “logistical hurdles” of rearranging court employees’ schedules so the building could accommodate hundreds of expected attendees. Some of that work included “redeployment of multiple Deputy U.S. Marshals and Court Security Officers,” he wrote.
Beyond the administrative inconvenience, Bredar also noted the expected crowd “rearranged their work, school, and personal calendars accordingly” to attend the hearing.
“The primary purpose of this hearing is to hear from the public; it would be especially inappropriate to grant this late request for a delay when it would be the public who were most adversely affected by a postponement,” he wrote, emphasizing with actual underlining.
Officials from around Baltimore vehemently opposed the DOJ’s motion to delay. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Tuesday morning that his department was “ready to roll” with implementation and called the surprise move by Sessions’ staff a “punch in the gut.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh also criticized the move on Monday night, and said on Wednesday morning that her administration was ready to go as well, even before Bredar made his decision.
Beyond airing their criticisms of the DOJ’s attempt to delay, Baltimore officials on Tuesday filed a motion opposing the DOJ’s request in court. Attorneys representing the mayor’s office, the Baltimore City Council and the Baltimore Police Department all signed on, arguing first and foremost that a postponement would undermine public confidence in the process after city residents had already submitted their thoughts online (and via snail mail) and made plans to attend the public hearing.
They also noted DOJ attorneys already agreed to proceed with implementing the consent decree back in February, and that the review that DOJ requested could happen even if the court carried on with hosting the hearing tomorrow.
There’s also the entire benefit of preserving the process of implementing the consent decree, attorneys wrote, noting it aims to address a slew of problems identified in a DOJ investigation that followed the unrest after the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
Mayor Pugh said in a statement on Wednesday night that she was pleased with Bredar’s decision. She’s now looking ahead.
“The crucial next step of receiving public input occurs tomorrow,” she said. “I hope citizens will take advantage of this opportunity to have their voices heard. It will take all of us — City government, the police department, and the families and residents of our great City — to see this reform process through.”
The public hearing is set to run from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. in the U.S. District Courthouse at 101. W. Lombard Street.
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