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Lynch pushes Baltimore to reach police consent decree

Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks May. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Lynch would come to Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup on Friday to discuss giving Pell grants to prisoner. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks in May. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Thursday stepped up the pressure on Baltimore officials to reach a deal with the federal government to overhaul the city’s police practices, saying “the ball is in the city’s court” to conclude negotiations soon.

Lynch, who took office in April 2015 as riots roiled Baltimore after the death of a black man in police custody, said she intends to return to Baltimore in January to give an update on efforts to reach a court-enforceable consent decree.

Her statements seemed intended to publicly push Baltimore toward a resolution and appeared to reflect disappointment in the pace of negotiations.

Though consent decrees can take months to negotiate, the federal government and Baltimore already had reached an agreement in principle by August, when the Justice Department issued a report that identified discriminatory policing practices and pervasive civil rights violations.

Lynch’s comments came one day after police Commissioner Kevin Davis was asked about progress toward a consent decree during a Greater Baltimore Committee event. Davis said negotiations take a while but it’s important to come up with an agreement that is “right for Baltimore.”

“I understand that the election in November introduces a new dynamic to it but that shouldn’t cause us to unnecessarily slam the gas pedal down and get something wrong in a consent decree that impacts us for a decade,” he said.

The Justice Department is looking to conclude the process by Jan. 20, when the Obama administration ends and Lynch and other leaders will move on — a timeline for completion that remains possible. The city has been provided with each of the sections of the proposed consent decree and has had some of the sections for months, according to a person familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to discuss the ongoing talks and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A consent decree, filed in federal court and overseen by a monitor, often is a road map for changes in fundamental police department practices, such as in how officers use deadly force and carry out traffic stops. The Justice Department has the ability to sue cities that refuse to reach such an agreement. The government sued Ferguson, Missouri, under similar circumstances last year after the police shooting of an unarmed black man. The two sides ultimately reached a resolution.

“It’s good for both parties because it sets forth the framework of what the city has to do. It sets forth the benchmarks the city has to meet,” Lynch said at a discussion hosted by Politico.

Davis said Wednesday people often incorrectly assume the Justice Department comes to the city with an open checkbook to help enact the reforms in a finalized consent decree. The agreement’s impact on other aspects of government, particularly budgets, must be considered in negotiations.

“The cost of the reform is a responsibility that local taxpayers have,” Davis said.

The Justice Department opened an investigation into Baltimore’s police department last year, months after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who was injured in a police transport van.

A report in August found that Baltimore police officers routinely discriminate against blacks, repeatedly use excessive force and are not adequately held accountable for misconduct.

Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer Heather Cobun contributed to this report.