BALTIMORE — A Justice Department attorney expressed “grave concerns” Thursday about moving forward with a federal plan to make changes to this city’s police department, telling a federal judge that the Trump administration prefers that revisions be made and overseen by local government.
The hearing to gather public input on the proposed consent decree became a clash over the future of police departments, as Baltimore residents affected by police shootings and beatings forcefully pushed back against any delays.
The hearing came just days after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would have top deputies review such agreements with departments nationwide.
Sessions said he wanted to ensure the agreements align with administration priorities of promoting officer safety and morale while fighting violent crime, but advocates say the move could stymie much-needed changes to departments in the wake of high-profile police shootings of minorities in recent years.
The tension was on display Thursday, as well as an unusual role reversal — the Justice Department distanced itself from its plan negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration, while Baltimore officials, residents and activists openly embraced it.
“Please do not delay this decree,” implored Greta Carter-Willis, whose 14-year-old son was fatally shot by a police officer several years ago. “We need to turn this police department around.”
She later broke down crying.
The consent decree follows a blistering Justice Department report that found widespread constitutional violations and discrimination in the Baltimore Police Department. The report was prompted by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured in police custody.
John Gore, the acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of Justice, said in court Thursday that the department wanted a 30-day delay on a decision to implement the plan “so new leadership can reanalyze and engage with the city as necessary.”
Ultimately, “it is up to local communities to try and work with police to try and ensure reforms are implemented fully,” Gore said. “We have grave concerns that this consent decree is what is needed” as the means to change the police force and help fight crime.”
U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar did not say whether he would agree to the 30-day request. Bredar had rejected a request made Monday by Justice lawyers to push back Thursday’s hearing by three months.
Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, called the situation in Baltimore “unprecedented and extraordinary.” He said there is no precedent for a lead party to pull out after a consent decree is signed and the matter is before the court. “We are in uncharted territory.”
Smith, was in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under the Obama administration from 2010 through 2015 and negotiated a consent decree with the New Orleans Police Department.
In New Orleans, Smith said, the city tried to pull out of the consent decree, but the federal judge refused, noting the decree was for the residents. But New Orleans was the entity being sued. In Baltimore, it is the federal government, which brought the civil rights suit, that is having second thoughts.
Gore and Robert Moossy, the civil rights division’s deputy assistant attorney general, were in court Thursday. The team of civil rights lawyers who worked to negotiate the Baltimore consent decree were not present.
David E. Ralph, a lawyer for Baltimore, said in court that federal oversight is needed while the department is undergoing changes such as outfitting police with body cameras and crafting new ways to address police encounters with mentally disabled residents.
The city is preparing to allocate $10 million to implement the agreement in the first year, which includes a monitor who would answer to the judge and ensure the changes are being made.
“A better-equipped police department will have the trust of the community,” Ralph said. “We have to repair trust in the community.”
The exchange came in a packed courtroom. Nearly 50 residents and advocates appeared in court to complain about mistreatment by city police and urge federal oversight.
Civil rights leaders spoke, as did a rabbi, community organizers and four relatives of people killed by police.
“The Department of Justice decision to seek a delay would deny relief to the citizens of Baltimore,” said Kenneth Parsons, who has lived in the city for 30 years. “The decree may not be what everyone wants, but it is a good-faith step in the right direction. Trust must be restored.”
Since 2009, the Justice Department has opened 25 investigations into police departments and has been enforcing 14 consent decrees in places as diverse as Ferguson, Mo., Seattle and New Orleans. The department has six open investigations or pending consent decrees, including Baltimore.
The Obama administration aggressively pursued these investigations as a tool to bring about police accountability and scrambled to get many consent decrees finalized before Obama left office.
Sessions has expressed deep skepticism about consent decrees, saying they have undermined local policing.
Thursday’s hearing prompted the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to move to have two additional plaintiffs — a nonprofit collaboration of six local pastors called Community Churches for Community Development, as well as Ralph E. Moore Jr., a 64-year-old Baltimore resident who has spent decades as a social worker in the city — added to the consent decree suit as plaintiffs.
If the “intervention” court filing, entered late Thursday, is granted by the judge, the church group and Moore would have to be included in any efforts to renegotiate the terms of the consent decree and would have to sign off on any changes.
“We feel like there is sufficient evidence that our clients and the residents of Baltimore and their right to be free of unconstitutional policing are not adequately represented by the DOJ,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
At one point Thursday, Bredar, a former public defender who was appointed to the federal bench under Obama, reminded Gore that the Justice Department has already signed the consent decree and that Baltimore is ready to finalize the document and move forward.
Many of the residents who spoke in court said they hoped that would happen.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Baltimore resident Alecia Dean. “We have been murdered, abused, oppressed, suppressed and humiliated by the Baltimore Police Department.”
Wesley Lowery and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.