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Baltimore, Feds agree to consent decree

P. Kenneth Burns
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh commenting on a consent decree agreed upon between the city and the Justice Department. Pugh is joined by (from left) Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch among other officials.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Read the full consent decree below.

Baltimore City and federal officials announced Thursday an agreement that will force the Baltimore Police Department to reform. The decree comes six months after a scathing Justice Department report found that city police routinely violated citizens’ rights; especially of African-Americans.

The consent decree is the product of a civil rights investigation into the police department after the 2015 in-custody death of Freddie Gray.  Gray suffered severe injuries while being transported in a police van.

Details of the consent decree were made public as a news conference was taking place announcing the agreement.

Mayor Catherine Pugh made finalizing the decree a priority shortly after entering office in December.  She said she was more concerned about fairness for every citizen than the cost of implementing the decree.

“It’s important that every aspect, every individual, every person regardless of what you think about though, what you thought they might have been doing,” she said.  “Everybody deserves respect.”

Pugh has said she wanted the agreement done quickly, before President-elect Donald Trump takes office; fearing he could undo work towards the decree.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the agreement will take effect once a federal judge signs off on it.

“This agreement will live on,” Lynch said.  “It’s court enforceable; there will be an independent monitor and it will live on as a document of the court and as a binding agreement between the city and the Department of Justice.

The Baltimore Sun reported that the case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar.

The decree touches on 15 areas; including use of force, interactions with youth, sexual assault investigations and police stops.  It also guides how suspects are to be transported – a central part of the Freddie Gray case – investigating accused officers, recruiting, hiring and retaining officers and updating department technology.

Both the city and Justice Department asked for a hearing in federal court to allow for people to comment on the decree before making it finial.

Vanita Gupta, head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department, said work will begin to put a monitor in place to make sure the decree is being carried out once Bredar approves it.

“We will engage in a process that is transparent and provide public opportunities into that process,” she said.

Gupta added the city will have input on who will monitor the reforms as well.  But Bredar will have final say.

“Ultimately, we will be making recommendations to a federal judge who has the consent decree.  And a federal judge will have the ultimate authority to appoint the monitor.”

A consent decree is familiar territory for Police Commissioner Kevin Davis.  He was a high ranking officer in the Prince George’s County Police Department when that agency was operating under a federal consent decree more than a decade ago.

He said this will ultimately benefit city officers.

“Whether its accountability or training or technology or all the intervention systems that don’t exist right now,” he said. “Policies and procedures that reflect the latest and greatest of our profession in 2017; the cops on the street will absolutely benefit from this consent decree.”

Davis also said the decree gives his department a road map for the future.

“So no matter who is standing in particular positions, things can continue to get accomplished.  So it’s no longer a singular person pushing reform.”

The consent decree also requires the creation of a community oversight task force that is charged with making recommendations on how community oversight of the Baltimore Police Department is done.

Billy Murphy, lawyer for the Gray family, said the decree means Gray’s death was not in vain.  And that the decree means policing in Baltimore will not be as it was.

“A sea change is what we want; a sea change in community involvement, in improving policing, in making sure people’s constitutional rights are not disregarded,” Murphy said.

Credit P. Kenneth Burns
Before the formal announcement of the consent decree, the city Board of Estimates held a special meeting to take public comments on the agreement. The city's spending board unanimously approved the consent decree.

Prior to the announcement, the city Board of Estimates took public comment on the decree.

Community activist Kim Trueheart told the city’s spending panel that the agreement needs to delve deep in long standing issues with the department.

“If this decree doesn’t go far enough – and I’m a skeptic; an absolute skeptic – you’re not gonna have a happy city,” she said, “Because we’re already not happy.”

The city’s police union is not happy either.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said in a tweeted statement that the Justice Department left them out of the negotiations.

“Despite continued assurances by representatives of the Department that our organization would be included in the consent decree negotiations, no request to participate was ever forthcoming and we were not involved in the process.”

Ray Kelly, with the West Baltimore-based No Boundaries Coalition, said his community groups met with the Justice Department.

“Since the findings, we’ve worked together in nine events,” he said.  “Someone from No Boundaries will be in every aspect of this process until we see a different police department.”

No Boundaries is one of many community groups in the city that has encouraged the police department, city hall and city residents to get involved in police reform.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said it’s possible that neither the Justice Department report, nor the consent decree would have happened without the unrest following Freddie Gray’s death

“We can look at it and sat that’s a bad thing or we can look at it and use that as a moment when Baltimore finally realized that we can no longer operate the way we were,” Scott said.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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