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Editorial: Sending the wrong message

Though it has a bad connotation, the concept of hiring a lawyer as a preventive measure (“lawyering up”) almost always is a prudent step. Better to be prepared for the worst-case scenario than to be caught flat-footed.

So it was back in May, when Baltimore city officials announced they had hired lawyers from the Washington, D.C., firm of WilmerHale after the U.S. Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and its practices. The wounds from the riots in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death were still fresh, and the legal fallout from the entire incident remained uncertain.

Fast forward seven months. Baltimore has, for better or worse, returned to a relative state of normalcy. Gray’s family, for better or worse, reached at $6.4 million settlement with the city, ending the threat of civil litigation. Criminal trials have been scheduled for all of the six officers who were charged in connection with Gray’s death. Officer William Porter’s trial, so far, has been a model of efficiency. Protests outside the courthouse have been small and not disruptive.

Baltimore, in other words, has not descended into chaos while the entire world watched.

This is why we were puzzled and, frankly, disappointed to learn Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has asked the City Council for another $2 million to pay legal fees to WilmerHale. What began as a preventive measure now looks like a defensive crouch.

(As an aside, we also wonder why the administration did not hire lawyers in a firm based in Baltimore, let alone Maryland. Woody Preston served as the state’s special counsel during the 1985 savings and loan crisis, for example, while Peter Angelos represented the state in the tobacco litigation more than a decade. Ben Civiletti, the former U.S. attorney general, immediately comes to mind as someone who might have been able to help in the current situation, as does former city state’s attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, and we know there are others.)

City Solicitor George A. Nilson told The Baltimore Sun this week that the Justice Department has received 60,000 pages of documents and 800,000 emails from the city as well as talked to as many as a dozen people a day. He said it was important to have experienced lawyers from WilmerHale available to assemble and review documents and accompany employees during interviews.

But this is not a criminal probe. A civil rights investigation looks at an entire organization’s “patterns and practices.” It looks to see if an agency is the victim of a few bad apples or systemic rot and then comes up with ways to address the problems.

Police departments in other cities, such as Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Cleveland, have faced similar Justice Department probes. The results are not pretty but they are comprehensive and necessary to effect change. The Cleveland investigation, for example, found a pattern of Fourth Amendment violations by officers, including excessive use of force and lethal force, as well as a failure by the department to hold officers accountable. The investigation led to a 100-plus-page consent decree between the Justice Department and Cleveland that requires more outside oversight of the police department, a revised operations manual and more training officers for responding to mental health incidents.

These federal investigations also are not an adversarial process. Institutions under a federal probe are not chosen willy-nilly. That something reaches the level of a federal investigation means there are serious, fundamental problems.

We believe our elected officials and police commissioners have been sincere when discussing the need for changes in what clearly has been a broken system. Which is why Baltimore needs to take whatever medicine the Justice Department orders without a fight or objection.

The $2 million in additional legal fees is a drop in the bucket compared to the entire city budget. But calling off the lawyers in this case would be a resounding gesture that Baltimore is serious about criminal justice reform.