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Baltimore, Justice Department closing in on agreement over policing reforms

Kevin Rector and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

BALTIMORE -- Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice have concluded months of negotiations over a raft of city policing reforms that will be court enforced as part of a formal consent decree, Mayor Catherine Pugh's office said Wednesday.

The agreement still must be signed by both sides, Pugh said, and approved by a U.S. District Court judge before becoming binding. It has not been made public.

"We're very, very close," Pugh said. "We're going to get it done."

Pugh called a Thursday morning meeting of the city's spending panel to accept the consent decree. The city's five-member Board of Estimates must approve all city spending of more than $25,000.

An agenda outline for the meeting, posted on the city's website Wednesday, noted the agreement "will be funded through the City's and BPD's annual budgeting and appropriations," but that the "timing and scope of the required funds" still must be determined by the court.

Members of the public will be allowed to comment on the agreement during the board meeting.

The consent decree is expected to mandate changes to a range of policing policies, tactics and operations -- including how officers conduct street enforcement, respond to sexual assault complaints, and interact with youths, protesters and those with mental illnesses.

It is also expected to require the police department to introduce new layers of oversight for officers, new methods of tracking misconduct and other data, new training, and major investments in modern technologies -- including mobile computers in patrol vehicles -- to streamline operations and enhance data retention and analysis.

It is also expected to touch on community policing policies, community oversight and transparency.

The Justice Department has not responded to requests for comment on the status of the negotiations on Wednesday.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch is scheduled to give a speech on "community policing" in Baltimore on Thursday at the University of Baltimore School of Law, and to meet with community groups and law enforcement officials.

The agreement comes at a time of intense scrutiny for law enforcement agencies across the country and particularly here in Baltimore, where the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015 prompted unrest, rioting and the unsuccessful prosecution of six involved police officers -- all of which exposed deep rifts between police and community members.

It follows a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department, partially in response to the unrest, that found that the Baltimore Police Department has engaged in unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices for years, many of which disproportionately impacted residents in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

In a 163-page findings report in August, federal investigators said city police often conducted unconstitutional stops and searches of city residents, improperly disregarded sexual assault complaints and violated protesters' free speech rights, among other violations.

In lieu of an immediate lawsuit to resolve the problems, the Justice Department agreed to enter into negotiations with the city to reach a consent decree that ensured the city police department "delivers services in a manner that respects the rights of residents, increases trust between officers and the communities they serve, and promotes public and officer safety."

That "agreement in principle" outlined general areas where both sides agreed improvements were needed -- the same areas now expected to be reflected in the consent decree.

Once the consent decree is signed by both sides, it will be filed jointly by the two parties in U.S. District Court as a proposed settlement within a Justice Department lawsuit related to the summer findings report. A federal judge overseeing the case will then assess the proposal to determine if it is fair, reasonable and adequately serves the public good, experts said. It's unclear how long that will take.

The judge could approve the agreement through a written order, experts said, or schedule a hearing to gather input from other stakeholders, such as community groups or the local police union. Outside groups could potentially file motions to intervene in the case in order to register objections, experts said.

Once approved by the court, the agreement is expected to take years and tens of millions of dollars in city funding to implement, all under the oversight of the court and a federal monitor paid by the city. The monitor, also subject to court approval, could be announced as part of the agreement, or the two sides could agree to work through a designated process to appoint the monitor later, experts said.

The agreement comes little more than a week before the inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump on Jan. 20, which current Justice Department officials and city leaders had set as a deadline for the deal because of fears -- shared by community leaders and other local elected leaders -- that Trump and his pick for U.S. attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, will be less exacting overseers of troubled police departments than current Attorney General Lynch and President Barack Obama.

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