Police and Law Enforcement

Baltimore Police commits to sweeping changes in Justice Dept. deal

Recent spat of violence - and challenges to key evidence before trial of van driver in Freddie Gray case - sparking tension. The 'On the Record' legal panel takes a closer look

 

The Baltimore police department committed to a sweeping overhaul of its practices Thursday under a court-enforceable agreement with the federal government, the 15th such deal reached during the Obama administration.

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The Justice Dept. agreement, which was approved by the city government and will now be submitted to a judge, mandates changes in the most fundamental aspects of police work. The agreement, known as a consent decree, is the culmination of months of negotiations with the federal government and is meant to correct constitutional violations identified in a scathing report released last year.

The filing of the agreement, in the waning days of Attorney General Loretta Lynch's tenure, is meant as a capstone for an administration that has made civil rights enforcement a key priority and that has pursued similar consent decrees with other large American police forces. Eleven consent decrees or settlements were reached with police during the George W. Bush administration, and three during the Clinton administration.

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"Through this agreement, we are moving forward together to heal the tension in the relationship between (the city police department) and the community it serves," Lynch said at a news conference announcing the agreement. "I firmly believe that when focused, measurable and detailed reforms are implemented effectively, they restore community trust and advance officer and public safety," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, added.

The agreement was intended to be remain in place long after Lynch leaves office, though civil liberties advocates are concerned that Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who's been nominated to replace her, may not look to enforce consent decrees with the same vigor.

The Baltimore city government signed off on the agreement Thursday. A hearing was planned allowing for public comment on the agreement before it's approved by a federal judge.

The Justice Dept. began investigating the Baltimore force following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who was fatally injured while in the custody of officers. Its report last August found that officers were routinely stopping large numbers of people in poor, black neighborhoods for dubious reasons, and unlawfully arresting residents merely for speaking out in ways police deemed disrespectful.

The consent decree is meant as a remedy for some of those same problems.

It discourages the arrests of citizens for quality of life offenses, requiring a supervisor to sign off on any request to take someone into custody for a minor infraction, and also mandates basic training for making stops and searches.

In addition, it also commands officers to use de-escalation techniques, thoroughly investigate sexual assault claims and send specially trained units to distress calls involving people with mental illness.

The agreement also lays out policies for transporting prisoners, a likely acknowledgment of the death of Gray, who suffered a grievous spinal cord injury in the back of a police van. The consent decree requires officers to ensure that prisoners are protected with seat belts and to check on them periodically to make sure that they're safe.

The Justice Department in the Obama administration has launched about two dozen wide-ranging investigations of police agencies, including Chicago, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri, and is enforcing consent decrees with many of them.

At his confirmation hearing this week, Sessions expressed ambivalence about the enforcement of consent decrees. He said that while he believed individual officers needed to be held accountable for wrongdoing, he was concerned about maligning an entire police agency for what may be the bad actions of a small number of officers.

"It is a difficult thing for a city to be sued by the Department of Justice and to be told that your police department is systematically failing to serve the people of the state or the city," Sessions said.

"So they often feel forced to agree to a consent decree just to remove that stigma," he added. "And sometimes there are difficulties there, so I just think we need to be careful and respectful of the parties."

Fox News' Matt Dean, Courtney Stein Lesskis and The Associated Press contributed to this report.