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Baltimore police reforms to test next mayor, state legislature

Members of the Baltimore Police Department stand behind barriers outside of the Western District police station during a march for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Members of the Baltimore Police Department stand behind barriers outside of the Western District police station during a march for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The task of trying to reform Baltimore’s police department in the aftermath of a damning U.S. Department of Justice report will largely fall to the police commissioner, mayor and state legislature.

The report, officially released Wednesday, accuses the department of using excessive force, retaliating against people engaged in constitutionally protected expression and using strategies that target black residents.

“The pattern or practice occurs as a result of systemic deficiencies at BPD. The agency fails to provide officers with sufficient policy guidance and training; fails to collect and analyze data regarding officers’ activities; and fails to hold officers accountable for misconduct. BPD also fails to equip officers with the necessary equipment and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally, and effectively,” according to the report.

An attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday, there is already an agreement in principle for a framework for negotiations on reforms, which will eventually be put in place through a court-enforceable consent decree. The next steps in implementing the agreement will involve meetings with police experts and community members.

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminology professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore, said there have been previous attempts at reforming the department in the past, but “slippage along the way” prevented real reform from taking hold. He added that the federal government acting as an overseer in this case could provide stability.

“I think the depth at which it did its investigation was appropriate, in general, and its findings appear appropriate and sound,” Ross said. “The value of the report will be determined when we have to engage in this negotiation over the consent decree, the implementation of the consent decree, that sort of thing.”

But much of the heavy lifting will have to come from a newly elected mayor. Current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not seek re-election following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries in police custody and the subsequent riots in April 2015. As a result, despite facing challengers in November, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, a Democrat, will likely be the political official most responsible for guiding police reform.

Pugh, who did not return a call seeking comment for this story, has previously said she wants Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who was only confirmed by the City Council last October, to stay on in his role if she takes office in December.

“Almost all structural changes in how the police department operates either would have to be done by the administration just agreeing to do it and change policy, or if they were going to be done legislatively they would have to be done through state law changes,” Bill Henry, a veteran member of the City Council, said.

Community input to the reform process, meanwhile, could add a volatile dimension to the discussion, as activists and community groups are likely to push for more aggressive reforms than politicians are willing to enact.

Tellingly, the news of the agreement in principle between the city and the Justice Department was greeted by several activists as just the start of the reform process.

“While this initial agreement between the two parties is a good start, it’s crucial that further discussions toward the development of a formal consent decree include strong community input, which has largely been ignored or swept aside in the past,” said Open Society Institute-Baltimore, an outspoken advocate of urban policing reforms.

There are also lingering doubts about the willingness of the General Assembly to take on major reforms during the next legislative session that starts in January.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Democrat who has been a longtime critic of the police department, is dubious her colleagues will take up the most difficult reforms, such as overhauling the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. She said she expects a few token gestures, but believes her colleagues will argue they need to give Davis’ reforms time to work before acting, which she thinks isn’t enough.

“I think the police department needs a complete change in culture and mentality,” Carter said.

Gov. Larry Hogan, asked his views on the Justice Department report and its conclusions, said he had not had a chance to review it yet.

“Well, like I said, I haven’t seen the DOJ report yet, and I didn’t hear what the mayor had to say. I don’t know how good her math is. We’re going to take a close look at it and see if we can provide any assistance,” Hogan said.

“I can just say that the new police commissioner, I think, is doing an incredible job.  We’re very happy with him and have a great working relationship. I believe they’ve already implemented like 26 of the changes potentially recommended in this report, although I haven’t seen the report, that’s just what I heard. I’m looking forward to the new leadership in Baltimore. We have a new mayor coming in, a whole new administration and hopefully they’ll take some of these issues seriously.”

The Daily Record legal affairs writer Heather Cobun contributed to this article.