The U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Baltimore announced on Jan. 12 that they had entered into a court enforceable agreement governing wide-ranging reforms to the city’s police department.

“This is a great day for Baltimore,” said Mayor Catherine Pugh at a news conference in Baltimore.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh speaks during a joint news conference in Baltimore on Jan. 12 to announce the Baltimore Police Department’s commitment to a sweeping overhaul of its practices under a court-enforceable agreement with the federal government. Standing behind Pugh is Attorney General Loretta Lynch, center right. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The 227-page consent decree came after months of negotiations in response to a Justice Department review that reported systemic discriminatory and unconstitutional practices by Baltimore police officers.

Among other things, the agreement outlines mandates that foster community-based policing, prohibits the targeting of African-Americans and the use of excessive force, bans unlawful stops and arrests, calls for victim-centered handling of sex assault cases, increases officer accountability and provides needed tools and training to law enforcement to support effective policing.

The decree also calls for the department to better track data, including stops and arrests, to ensure transparency of its practices; requires all police vehicles used to transport detainees to be outfitted with proper seatbelts and other safety equipment as well as cameras; and would assign an independent monitor to ensure the department is implementing the agreed-upon reforms.

“Last August, we concluded that the Baltimore Police Department had engaged in conduct that deprived the people of Baltimore of the rights and protections guaranteed to every American, and that the deeply-rooted mistrust between law enforcement officers and the community they serve harmed all who call Baltimore home,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch in a statement.  “After thorough, good-faith negotiations, the Department of Justice and the city of Baltimore have agreed to enter into a court-enforceable consent decree to remedy the violations identified in our investigation.”

She added, “The reforms in this consent decree will help ensure effective and constitutional policing, restore the community’s trust in law enforcement, and advance public and officer safety.  We could not be prouder to partner with the people of Baltimore on this journey towards making their city a community that protects the dignity, rights, and safety of all its people.”

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, added that the deal will “end the legacy of Baltimore’s ‘zero tolerance’ policing.”

The Department of Justice opened a pattern-and-practice investigation into the Baltimore Police Department after 25-year-old Freddie Gray broke his neck while being transported in a police vehicle in April 2015. The African-American man’s death prompted civil unrest and then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake called on the department to launch an investigation.

After more than year-long probe, the Department issued a blistering report which found that Baltimore police officers routinely engaged in unconstitutional and biased practices, including racial discriminating against African-Americans, using excessive force, making illegal arrests and demonstrating gender bias in the way it investigates sexual assault cases.

Officers concentrated stop-and-frisk efforts in majority-Black neighborhoods, searching persons without reasonable cause, the report found. In fact, African-American residents were three times as likely to be stopped as compared to Whites, and accounted for 84 percent of all pedestrian stops between 2010 and 2015. Baltimore cops also arrested individuals on dubious grounds, even violating civilians’ First Amendment rights by arresting people whose speech was deemed too critical or disrespectful.

The report also said that the department’s training and guidance endorsed the use of unnecessary physical force which was often used against the mentally disabled, juveniles and civilians who posed no immediate threat.

The report also noted that BPD’s systemic constitutional and statutory violations were rooted in “structural failures” such as poor officer training, a lack of community-based policing and a failure to hold officers accountable for misconduct.

Civil rights groups, who have long called for police reform in Baltimore and elsewhere, are hailing the agreement, which officials fought to complete before the Obama administration ended this month.

“The problems that pervade the Baltimore Police Department are vast and extensive.  this consent decree is an important tool to help restore justice and equity to a police department that has for too long failed its residents,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the AFRO.

“The new consent decree that has been negotiated by no means constitutes an overnight fix to these problems,” she added. “Rather, it puts the department on a path to long overdue reform.  The next Attorney General must maintain a commitment to this important work.”

Maryland lawmakers also expressed gratitude that an agreement had been struck.

“We look forward to learning more about the contents of this important document, and hope that it will provide the roadmap for reform the BPD needs,” said Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Elijah Cummings, John Sarbanes and Dutch Ruppersberger in a joint statement.  “We must ensure that the basic human rights of every Baltimore City resident are respected and upheld by the police officers charged with keeping them safe.”

The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3, however, did not offer much comment beyond a complaint that they were not involved.

“Despite continued assurances by representatives of the Department of Justice that our organization would be included in the Consent Decree negotiations, no request to participate was ever forthcoming and we were not involved in the process,” the police union said in a brusque statement.

Perry Tarrant, national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, predicted the agreement could cause some fallout among rank-and-file officers.

“The last thing most organizations look forward to is change, period; and worse, a change in culture,” Tarrant told the AFRO. “You will have some people who will leave the Baltimore Police Department and it may also present some challenge in terms of recruiting officers.”

Tarrant, the assistant chief of police for the City of Seattle, which is also under a consent decree with the Department of Justice, also pointed to other adverse aspects of the decree.

“There will be a huge financial burden,” he said, citing officer training and court costs, and payments to the independent monitor. “These are funds that have to be diverted from other departments.”

Mayor Pugh said she is not sure about the cost of implementing the reforms, particular those related to training officers and integrating new technology. “For me this is not about costs; this is about fairness and understanding,” she said.

Tarrant said there are many more benefits to such court enforceable agreements, however. Since Seattle entered its consent decree, for example, the police department is enjoying its highest approval rating in history.

Consent decrees “do work,” Tarrant said. “This document will force change and it will force change to happen more quickly.”

Before it can be enacted, the agreement must be approved in the U.S. District Court for Maryland. The city and federal government have asked Judge James K. Bredar, to whom the case was assigned, to hold a hearing and solicit stakeholder input before making a ruling.

Consent Decree Agreement

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO