Justice Department expresses skepticism in court over Baltimore police consent decree

In Nation
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BALTIMORE — A U.S. Justice Department attorney expressed skepticism Thursday about moving forward with a consent decree to reform this city’s police department, telling a federal judge the Trump administration favors changes be made and overseen by local government.

The hearing to gather public input on the proposed decree comes days after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would have top deputies review such agreements with police departments nationwide.

Sessions said the review was necessary to ensure the agreements align with the Trump Administration goals of promoting officer safety and morale while fighting violent crime.

The shift signals a sea change from the Obama Administration, which had investigated departments across the country in the wake of high-profile police shootings of minorities that prompted calls for police reform.

“Ultimately it is up to local communities to try and work with police to try and ensure reforms are implemented fully,” John Gore, a deputy attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in court Thursday. “We have concern that this consent decree is what is needed’ as the means to change the police force and help fight crime.

But a lawyer for Baltimore, David E. Ralph, said that while the department is undergoing many changes in light of a Justice Department report last summer that found discriminatory and unconstitutional practices, federal oversight is needed to assure a distrustful public believes that real reform is taking place.

Ralph said that fighting crime and ensuring lawful policing are not inseparable issues. “A better equipped police department will have the trust of the community,” he said. “We have to repair trust in the community.”

The exchange came at a packed courtroom in Baltimore’s federal court shortly before a line of residents gathered in stadium-style seating took turns addressing the court for three minutes each, some tearfully describing police harassment, beatings and killings.

“Please do not delay this decree,” said Greta Carter-Willis, whose 14-year-old son was fatally shot by a police officer several years ago. “We need to turn this police department around.”

Thursday’s hearing, which more resembled a spirited public forum than a formal court proceeding, came one day after U.S. District Judge Kevin K. Bredar denied a request from the Justice Department to delay the hearing for 90 days. The federal government wants to reassess the proposed decree, which was signed by city leaders and Justice officials during the final days of the Obama administration.

The judge has not yet signed off on the agreement, which would bring in an independent monitor to oversee years of complex reforms and could govern the way police protect the city for years to come. The proposed agreement comes after riots following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 after an injury in police custody.

At one point Thursday, Bredar, a former public defender who was appointed to the federal bench under the Obama administration, reminded the deputy attorney general Gore that the Justice Department has already signed the consent decree and that Baltimore is ready to finalize the document and move forward. Gore said his office still wants more time to go over the document.

No action has been taken on that request.

More than 25 people speaking for themselves or behalf of organizations took turns addressing the court through the morning. Mothers of slain relatives held pictures of lost loved ones for the judge to see. Many said the consent decree does not adequately address how police deal with mental health issues, which they said contributed to violent confrontations. Others said they had personally witnessed beatings by police or had been unfairly arrested or detained.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Baltimore resident Alecia Dean, “We have been murdered, abused, oppressed, suppressed, and humiliated by the Baltimore Police Department.”

Morcella Hill told the judge that Baltimore officers shot and killed her adult son in her home after she called 911 to get him help “I watched him die,” she said. “I saw my son die in my house.” She called the consent decree and the court hearing “a dog and pony show” that merely shuffles paperwork without any meaningful change.

Many residents told the judge that while the consent decree doesn’t address every problem it is a welcome start. Suzanne Sangree, the police department’s lawyer, implored, “The Baltimore Police Department needs all of us.”

In a two-page memo

Advocates said Sessions’s move could impede efforts to reform troubled police departments.

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