Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch increased the pressure Thursday on Baltimore leaders to sign a court-enforceable agreement that would reform its police department, saying she would travel to the city next month with hopes of making an announcement on the matter.
That announcement — in the Justice Department’s ideal world — would be that months of negotiation with Baltimore finally produced a consent decree mandating police reforms. The department said in an August report that Baltimore police had engaged in years of racially discriminatory policing and of using excessive force.
City leaders at the time said they would work with federal officials to implement reforms, though a self-imposed Nov. 1 deadline to hash out an agreement came and went. At a Politico Playbook breakfast Thursday, Lynch said getting a deal inked remained a priority.
“At this point, the ball’s in the city’s court, but we are looking forward to getting a positive response from them on finalizing this consent decree,” Lynch said. She added later: “Having that court enforceability is key, and it’s vital.”
Reforming local police departments has been something of a hallmark of Lynch’s Justice Department, and Baltimore always seemed to hold a special place in her heart. She was sworn in on the same day as the funeral for Freddie Gray, whose death in Baltimore police custody sparked riots in the city, and her first trip as attorney general was to visit the city to meet with police and residents. Soon after, the Justice Department opened what is known as a “pattern or practice” investigation into whether the police department employed systemic policies or tactics that violated the Constitution.
Lynch’s Justice Department is in the midst of a similar, high-profile review in Chicago, and officials under Lynch are pursuing another — though less heavy-handed — reform agreement through its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in San Francisco. The reforms there will not be court-enforceable.
In Baltimore, the Justice Department has for months been sending city leaders various proposals for pieces of the agreement, people familiar with the negotiations said. Newly elected Mayor Catherine Pugh recently told WBAL-TV that she wanted to get a deal done, though her previous comments had not been quite as emphatic. Asked whether she thought a court-ordered agreement was necessary, she said, “I would not say the consent decree is not needed,” according to the Baltimore Sun. She also said she worried about paying twice for changes that were already implemented, according to the Sun. A spokesman for Pugh did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The timing of an agreement is critical, as Lynch will be out as attorney general Jan. 20, and her likely successor, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), might not be as committed to police reform. In previous public statements, Sessions has taken a somewhat circumspect view of consent decrees.
“The decrees can be good and healthy. But as the Supreme Court is telling us, we ought to be respectful and understanding that it does impact in a significant way our separation of powers, the entire nature of our democracy, because it is removing the power from the people and putting it into the hands of an unelected judge who is not accountable,” he said at a 2005 hearing on the subject.
President-elect Donald Trump has positioned himself as a law-and-order candidate wary of restrictions on police. He said police in Chicago could stop a spate of deadly violence by being “very much tougher than they are right now,” and he wrote to the International Association of Chiefs of Police that he would generally keep the federal government out of local law enforcement’s business.