BALTIMORE (CN) – The future of law-enforcement reform for Baltimore’s beleaguered police department is unclear after a Justice Department official said Thursday there are “grave concerns” over a reform plan between the city and federal government.
“Ultimately, the job of police reform lies with the local [police] department and local government,” John Gore, deputy assistant attorney general, said at a public hearing in Maryland federal court Thursday morning.
In August, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on its investigation of systematic discrimination and constitutional rights violations in the Baltimore Police Department. Alleged abuses included widespread discrimination against poor black residents, a lack of response to reports of sexual assaults, use of excessive force and retaliation against those participating in constitutionally protected activities.
Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had called on the DOJ to conduct the investigation after violent riots swept through the city following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody in 2015 after sustaining a fatal spinal cord injury during transport to the police station after his arrest.
The Justice Department’s report marked the first formal step toward Baltimore’s proposed consent decree with the U.S. government, a process that includes a sweeping overhaul of police practices under the oversight of a federal judge.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge James Bredar denied the Justice Department’s motion to delay Thursday’s hearing on the consent decree, based on a recent directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking DOJ officials for a review of law-enforcement reform efforts around the country.
Sessions said the review was necessary to ensure the steps being taken are in line with President Donald Trump’s renewed focus on crime reduction.
Judge Bredar wrote that granting such a delay “at the eleventh hour would be to unduly burden and inconvenience the court, the other parties, and, most importantly, the public.”
On Thursday, Gore said the DOJ’s review of reform efforts would allow it to “try to find new ways to achieve the same objective.”
But David Ralph, acting solicitor for Baltimore, said the consent decree “is a fair, reasonable and heavily-negotiated document.”
“The consent decree has good reforms to strengthen our police department to better fight crime and to strengthen the protection of civil rights. And though some might think these two things are opposed; they are not,” Ralph said Thursday.
Ralph explained to the court that the decree is fiscally responsible, has cost-controlling measures, and supports better training and technology for the city’s police department while creating a transparent system for investigation into officers accused of wrongdoing.
He said that although the police department has made reforms of their own accord, including launching a body camera program and making changes to how prisoners are transported, the consent decree incorporates an independent monitor to oversee and help with reform implementation.
Ralph urged the court to enter the decree without delay, saying it includes provisions that allow the DOJ to make changes to the agreement. The consent decree must be approved by the court to become binding.
More than 40 members of the public signed up to speak at Thursday’s hearing. Many of them were representatives of local advocacy groups. Two of the first speakers were mothers that lost sons to police shootings.
During her three minutes at the podium, Marcella Hill told the court about the death of her 31-year-old son, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a police officer in her living room less than a minute after the officer had arrived on the scene.
Hill said the court should implement the decree despite her reluctance to believe in its efficacy, because “nothing is going to change unless there is someone overseeing the reforms.”
“Indeed, justice delayed is justice denied,” said Alecia Dean, who also urged the court to finalize the agreement.
Monique Dixon of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called on Judge Bredar to enter the consent decree, saying attempts by the Baltimore Police Department to reform itself have been unsuccessful and that misconduct by officers has cost the city more than $13 million in settlement payments.
It is unclear when or if the judge will approve the consent decree.
Adding to Baltimore’s struggles with police reform, seven plainclothes officers were indicted last month on racketeering charges. They are accused of stealing money and drugs from suspects, falsifying reports and affidavits, and claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay for hours they didn’t work. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has since disbanded their unit.