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DOJ unveils sweeping police reforms in Baltimore

Posted at 1:26 PM, Jan 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-12 13:26:03-05

Baltimore and the US Department of Justice agreed to terms Thursday on a consent decree mandating sweeping police reform, including community oversight, new recruitment and training policies, and video recording during prisoner transport.

“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,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

The Justice Department monitored Baltimore’s policing methods for more than a year after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while being transported in a police van.

The decree was filed in federal court Thursday, and after the expected approval of a judge, a period of community input will be followed by the selection of a monitor to oversee the police department.

“We have come a long, long way,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The consent decree in Baltimore comes months after a scathing Justice Department report in August that said the unconstitutional practices of some of the city’s 2,600 officers led to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests of black residents, and excessive use of force against juveniles and those with mental health disabilities.

The report, which covered data from 2010 to 2016, attributed the practices to “systemic deficiencies” in training, policies and accountability structures that “fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively.”

The reforms include a community oversight task force; new training on stops, searches and arrests; an emphasis on “de-escalation, using tactics that defuse incidents”; and oversight of sexual assault investigations to promote “victim-centered, trauma-informed approach and combat gender bias.”

The Justice Department had monitored Baltimore policing methods for more than a year after Gray’s death, which touched off protests and riots there and other cities and fueled a debate over racial bias in policing that drew federal scrutiny.

The decree comes in the same week as confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Justice Department and days before Lynch steps down. Sessions’ record has raised eyebrows with rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which considers the senator from Alabama “hostile to consent decrees.”

The ACLU cites a forward that Sessions wrote for a 2008 report published by Alabama Policy Institute in which he states:

“One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees. Consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end run around the democratic process.”

Session’s skepticism on police reform is in sharp contrast to the Justice Department under the Obama administration.

The department’s Civil Rights Division has investigated 25 law enforcement agencies over civil rights abuses during the past seven years; 14 investigations have ended in consent decrees. The department is enforcing an additional 19 agreements with law enforcement agencies.

Sessions’ testimony on police reform

During Sessions’ confirmation hearing Tuesday, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked the attorney general nominee whether he would commit to maintaining and enforcing consent decrees. He responded that a decree isn’t “necessarily a bad thing” but said he remained wary of lawsuits against police departments.

“I think there is concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong,” Sessions said.

“These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, followed by asking Sessions whether the Justice Department would help if cities asked for assistance. The nominee said, if asked, it should help.

“I think it’s a good thing that police departments might call on federal investigators,” Sessions said.

Yet he cautioned against undermining police departments.

“It really is important that people trust police departments and the police departments have respect from their communities, and when you don’t have that, people’s safety is at risk.” Sessions said.

Chicago investigation

Besides Baltimore, police departments in Ville Platte, Louisiana, and Chicago have also been under the Justice Department’s radar.

The department soon is expected to release the results of an investigation into the Chicago police.

Known as a “pattern and practice” inquiry, it’s expected to focus on use of force, deadly force accountability and how the Chicago force “tracks and treats” those incidents, Lynch said when she announced the investigation in December 2015.

In an unrelated news conference Wednesday, the attorney general said she couldn’t comment on when the Chicago report would be released but said Justice Department officials have been working “very diligently” with the city and police department.

“We do intend to push through and … give the city of Chicago, both law enforcement and the communities, the help that they deserve so that they can in fact work on this issues,” Lynch said.

CNN’s Lauren Meier and Jamiel Lynch contributed to this report.