DOJ to unveil police reforms in Baltimore

Posted at 7:33 AM, Jan 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-12 07:33:06-05

The Justice Department will unveil an agreement mandating police reforms in Baltimore on Thursday, federal officials said.

A consent decree is expected to be signed by city officials in a special morning meeting, CNN-affiliate WBAL-TV reported. The decree would likely require better tracking of problematic officers, more documentation of citizen interaction and use of force reporting, the station reported.

In the case of Baltimore, the consent decree comes months after a scathing DOJ 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 DOJ had monitored the department’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. Gray’s death touched off protests and riots in Baltimore and other cities, fueling a debate over racial bias in policing that drew the Justice Department’s 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 Attorney General Loretta Lynch steps down. Sessions’ record raises eyebrows with civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which considers Sessions “hostile to consent decrees.”

The ACLU cites a forward the Alabama senator wrote of a 2008 report published by Alabama Policy Institute in which the senator 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 of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has investigated 25 law enforcement agencies for 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 Tuesday’s hearing, Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono asked whether the DOJ nominee would commit to maintaining and enforcing consent decrees. Sessions responded that a decree isn’t “necessarily a bad thing.” But, 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.”

North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis followed up and asked Sessions whether the DOJ would help if cities asked for assistance. Sessions said, if asked, they would help.

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

Yet, the senator 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.

DOJ’s Chicago investigation

Baltimore isn’t the only pending investigation by the DOJ into police departments, the Ville Platte and Chicago police are also under the radar.

At some point, the DOJ is also expected to release the results of an investigation of the Chicago police department.

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

In an unrelated news conference Wednesday, Lynch said she couldn’t comment on when the Chicago report would be released but said justice 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.