A federal judge on Friday approved a plan to overhaul the Baltimore Police Department, an action that rebuked arguments from the new administration at the Justice Department which had spent a week asking the court to delay proceedings on the plan.
U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar ruled on the consent decree signed by the federal government and city officials in the final days of President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Bredar said in his ruling that the need for oversight was “urgent” and noted the number of residents who had testified at a hearing before him Thursday about their loss of faith in the police force.
“It would be extraordinary for the court to permit one side to unilaterally amend an agreement already jointly reached and signed,” the judge wrote. “Now it is time to enter the decree and thereby require all involved to get to work on repairing the many fractures so poignantly revealed by the record,” he wrote.
In a response to the judge’s action, the Justice Department issued an initial statement saying the agreement had been rushed and would make Baltimore “a less safe city” at a time when it is “plagued by a rash of violent crime that shows no signs of letting up.”
That was followed by a sharper addendum from department spokesman Ian Prior, who said, “One thing should be eminently clear. The Department of Justice under this administration will never negotiate or sign a consent decree that could reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has contended such decrees constrain police officers and in a memo released Monday ordering a review of all police consent decrees wrote that local, not federal, control is needed for effective community policing.
Proponents of the overhaul, including Baltimore’s mayor, hailed the approval as a model for how the transformation could work, but also worried about the commitment to follow through by the Justice Department.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said Friday that rebuilding trust and lowering crime “are not mutually exclusive.” The mayor said she will take the Justice Department at its word that it will work with her city. “I know they want us to reduce crime, and I know they want us to have the best police department we can have,” Pugh said.
The decree approval by Bredar--a former public defender who was appointed to the bench by Obama--allows Baltimore to move forward and work with the Justice Department to hire an independent monitor to oversee how the decree is implemented and followed. The choice of a monitor is subject to approval by the judge, but Pugh said the city hopes to have the monitor in place by fall.
A scathing report from the Justice Department last year found that Baltimore engaged in widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing practices.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the Justice Department’s recent statements proof “that they have lost interest in addressing the issue of unconstitutional policing in Baltimore.”
Ifill said “residents have been waiting for this for what seems like forever,” adding she now fears the government “will not vigorously participate in this case.”
Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Obama from 2014 through the end of his term, urged Sessions to “join the court, the mayor . . . and the people of Baltimore” in improving policing. She said the judge’s approval “puts Baltimore on the path to reform and rebuilding community-police trust that is so vital to public safety and police legitimacy in communities that need fair policing the most.”
The Justice Department under Obama opened 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies and has been enforcing 14 consent decrees. In his memo, Sessions urged a review of orders already in place and those pending to ensure they do not work against a primary goal of fighting crime. Sessions has often criticized the effectiveness of consent decrees and has vowed in recent speeches to more strongly support law enforcement.
Unlike in Baltimore, which had already signed an agreement with Justice officials, other cities under review, including Chicago, are not that far along, and the government could conceivably pull out of negotiations.
Baltimore entered into its decree after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray following an injury while in police custody. His death ignited riots and a string of protests.
Since the civil unrest, crime in Baltimore has soared. As of April 1, 80 people have been killed in the city this year, up 43 percent from this time in 2016. The pace exceeds that of 2015, when Baltimore recorded 344 homicides, the highest per-capita in history.
Friday’s statement from the Justice Department said that the decree will be expensive and onerous, requiring a “highly paid monitor to govern every detail of how the Baltimore Police Department functions.” Baltimore anticipates the first year will cost about $10 million, budget estimates show.
Jim Pasco, senior adviser to the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, also called consent decrees onerous and said in many cases the agreements restrict officers beyond what they are allowed by law to do in areas such as detentions and searches.
Pasco said he believes Sessions will be more selective in seeking consent decrees. “I don’t think this administration is going to take action that would unnecessarily impede law enforcement from doing their job,” Pasco said.