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Baltimore mayor, police commissioner pledge to move forward on reform efforts

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis speaks at a news conference at the department’s headquarters in Baltimore on April 4. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

After the federal government released a searing 163-page report in August condemning police practices in Baltimore, the police commissioner and mayor stood with Justice Department leaders to promise sweeping reform.

Change was necessary, they all said, not only to prevent riots like those that flared after the fatal injury of Freddie Gray in police custody, but also to repair the long-standing, deep rift between the city’s crime-weary residents and its police.

Nine months later, Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner again appeared before television cameras committing to overhaul the department.

But this time they stood by themselves.

“I’m asking the citizens of Baltimore to have faith that we will continue this work,” Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) said Tuesday. “It’s hard to deny that these kinds of reforms don’t need to take place in the city of Baltimore.”

The pledge to move ahead came hours after the Justice Department had asked a federal judge Monday night to postpone the department’s tentative police reform agreement with the city — part of a wider review of pacts nationwide ordered by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Baltimore consent agreement was announced days before President Trump took office and awaits a federal judge’s approval.

The request for a delay, which a judge has yet to rule on, left some Baltimore leaders and residents worried that momentum will wane and leave the city stuck in a familiar loop of unfulfilled promises.

On Tuesday evening, the city and the police department filed their opposition to the request for the delay, asking the federal judge to move ahead with a previously scheduled hearing on Thursday set to discuss the reform agreement and include public input.

A postponement of Thursday’s hearing “at this late date would inconvenience many, and would only serve to undermine, not build, public trust in the reform process,” the city’s filing stated. The city added that it “strains credulity” that the federal government would need 90 days to react to a memo from Sessions that repeated federal-local law enforcement collaborations that already are in place.

“It seemed clear that Justice was going ahead with these reforms, and now all of a sudden they don’t want to do it,” said Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the No Boundaries Coalition, a ­resident-led advocacy group.

The coalition helped organize residents to relay their experiences with city police to the Justice Department team that produced the August report, which concluded that the police department engaged in unconstitutional policing that discriminated against black residents in poor communities through illegal searches, arrests and stops for minor offenses.

“Residents invested two years doing this, and not going forward will destroy the trust that has built up,” Nagle said.

Baltimore officials and Justice Department announce agreement to revamp police practices

In Sessions’s two-page memo ordering the review of open and pending consent decrees, he said the department wants to guarantee the pacts are in line with Trump administration goals of promoting officer safety and morale while fighting violent crime.

“The Federal government alone cannot successfully address rising crime rates, secure public safety, protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public, or implement best practices in policing,” the memo stated. “These are, first and foremost, tasks for state, local and tribal law enforcement.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Tuesday that the requested delay was a “punch in the gut.”

“We have to continue to stress the necessity of constitutional policing in Baltimore and break the culture of zero-tolerance policing brought to the city many years ago,” he said.

Baltimore has long struggled with poor relations between police and the community as it tries to combat steady violent crime. But the need to repair relations and reform the department became more pressing after Gray, 25, died one week after he was injured in the back of a police van during a 2015 arrest. Protests and riots roiled the city, which has also seen record homicide rates in recent years.

Billy Murphy, the attorney representing Gray’s family, said “a deal is a deal” and the Justice Department should follow through. “It’s disappointing the Justice Department has signaled that it does not have a commitment to police reform around this country,” he said.

His sentiment echoed Tuesday evening among residents in Gray’s neighborhood.

Larry Geathers, who lives in West Baltimore, shook his head. "It was a lot of talk but no action," he said of the Justice Department. "In the end, same as it always is — nothing."

Geathers, who said he is unemployed and looking for work, supports the consent decrees, he said, because city police seem to “need another type of law enforcement looking after them. Actually we need another kind of law enforcement altogether, one that understands people and just doesn’t put a uniform in our face.”

The police department has enacted several reforms, including equipping officers with body-worn cameras and doubling training hours, Davis said. But the consent decree is crucial to ensure the department receives necessary funding to improve training and technology for officers and to implement change in a timely manner, he said.

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said that consent decrees and the monitors hired to ensure they are enforced are expensive and that Baltimore could move ahead with reform without a Justice Department agreement.

"What they're forced to spend for the care and feeding of a federal monitor should be used for training, hiring and whatever reforms are needed," Mac Donald said. "It's bizarre logic to say that these departments led by professional police chiefs are unable to engage in those reforms."

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Tapped to serve as deputy attorney general, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein would be one of the people in charge of reviewing the consent decrees under Sessions's order. Rosenstein, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the matter Tuesday.

In its Tuesday night court filing obejcting to a federal delay, the city noted that the federal administration had already received a postponement in January as the White House was transitioning to brief new leadership on the 227-page proposed consent decree with Baltimore.

The city also suggested that the federal judge weighing the decree could consider giving the new federal administration "a brief time period" to review the consent decree without postponing Thursday's hearing.

City Council member Brandon M. Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said it was dishonest for Justice Department attorneys to say at hearings that they were prepared to move forward and “then blindside us like this.” He said Baltimore intentionally pushed the consent decree quickly “to get ahead of this administration.”

Lt. Gene Ryan, head of the union for Baltimore’s rank-and-file officers, said the effort to develop an agreement before the start of the Trump administration resulted in a hurried process.

“The pause is actually a good thing because I’ve said the whole time that we should not rush through this,” he said.

While recent consent decrees have taken cities such as Chicago and New Orleans more than a year, Baltimore worked 14- to 16-hour days for 40 days to craft its agreement before a change in federal administrations, Pugh said.

Sessions orders Justice Department to review all police reform agreements

A City Council budget committee forged ahead Tuesday afternoon to discuss the nuts and bolts of funding the consent decree, which is estimated to cost the city $7.8 million to $10 million a year, budget documents show.

The city would need money for such items as rental cars for auditors and new computers to track arrests and internal discipline, said Ganesha M. Martin, chief of the police agency’s compliance, accountability and external affairs. The mayor asked for and received $2 million from the state and $1 million from a grant, she added.

A council member asked Martin whether the city had heard back from the federal government on a request for funds.

After laughter, Martin said, “No, Mr. Councilman, we have not.”

Keith Alexander and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.