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Judge: Baltimore is ‘ground zero’ for police reforms

Bredar says that BPD has made progress under consent decree but has 'miles' to go

U.S. District Chief Judge James K. Bredar

U.S. District Chief Judge James K. Bredar. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The Baltimore Police Department might finally be on its way toward implementing reforms required under an agreement it reached with the federal government to end unconstitutionally excessive tactics, the federal judge overseeing the three-year old accord said Thursday.

Chief U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said the BPD still has a long way to go to be in substantial compliance with the consent decree the city signed with the U.S. Justice Department, which he approved in April 2017. The agreement was reached amid cases of police brutality and evidence planting that resulted in the custody-related death of Freddie Gray and the conviction of officers from the disgraced and since-disbanded Gun Trace Task Force. .

Bredar praised BPD Commissioner Michael Harrison, saying his 16 months at the helm have provided stability and marked improvements in the police training and related reforms mandated in the consent decree. Before Harrison’s appointment, instability reigned in the mayor’s office and in BPD leadership, with Mayor Catherine Pugh resigning in May 2019 amid a campaign financing scandal and Commissioner Darryl De Sousa quitting in 2018 before pleading guilty to failing to file federal tax returns.

“In the last year, under the leadership of the new commissioner, I have seen the department finally start to make real progress in these core areas – not just planning but implementing,” Bredar stated in prepared remarks at his quarterly hearing on the department’s progress with consent decree compliance. “Capability now seems to match commitment. Officers are being trained, and retrained, on the new policies.”

But Bredar added the city “should be further along” in implementing the decree’s mandated reforms.

“Things are starting to get better in the Baltimore Police Department,” Bredar stated.

“But there are many miles to travel,” he added. “This is no time for more instability. Instead, it’s time to double down on plans already made; to fund essential elements of the reform plan; to support the police leaders enlisted to come here last year and take charge of a then-stumbling reform effort; to train, persuade, and otherwise bring rank and file officers on board, and to otherwise put our foot on the accelerator.”

Acting Baltimore Solicitor Dana P. Moore told Bredar Thursday that the BPD “has done a very good job of serving and protecting Baltimore citizens,” particularly in what she called the department’s respectful restraint during recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“Baltimore has been a model for other cities on how to respond to demonstrations,” Moore said.

The police have “preserved and protected First Amendment rights” of the protesters, she added.

Moore told Bredar she agreed with his assessment of the city’s recent, scandal-driven failure to meet the consent decree’s interim goals.

“There was too much self-interest and we’ve moved away from that,” Moore said in the federal courthouse in Baltimore.

“There is (now) commitment from the top down to the agencies,” she added. “There is a lot of work ahead, and we are committed to doing that.”

Bredar said Harrison’s efforts have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The judge also noted that the commissioner is now trying to meet the decree’s demands amid the demonstrations calling for national police reform following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Baltimore is no stranger to such protests, Bredar said, citing the city’s unrest after the April 2015 death of Gray, a Black man, from injuries sustained while in police custody.

“Other cities are now debating whether and how they wish to reform their police departments … what political and legal processes they wish to employ,” Bredar stated.

“Here in Baltimore, the decision to reform has already been made, and so too has the reform method been selected,” he added. “Here it’s a consent decree. There was a point when city leaders had a choice to make but that was long ago. And make it they did” by signing the decree.

The decree requires changes in when and how BPD officers use force; how they stop, search, and arrest people; how they deal with individuals who have mental health issues; and how they train officers to comply with these mandates. The 207-page decree also sets staffing goals and calls for department procedures to ensure good conduct.

“The Baltimore decree requires many of the very reforms citizens are clamoring for in the wake of George Floyd’s death, including a thorough reconsideration of when and how force should be used,” Bredar stated.

“The decree also requires the city to make sure it devotes adequate resources to its behavioral health system and to combating homelessness and substance abuse, so that police are not asked or expected to fill all of the gaps existing in those support systems,” Bredar added. “In some respects, Baltimore is already ‘ground zero’ for the ‘reimagination’ of policing in America.”

The case is United States of America v. Baltimore Police Department and the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 17-99-JKB.

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