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Five years into consent decree, independent monitor says Baltimore police are improving

“We can confidently state this morning that this department is making significant progress toward compliance in virtually all areas of the consent decree,” says Kenneth Thompson, a partner with Venable LLP who was chosen to serve as the monitor overseeing the consent decree. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The Baltimore Police Department is “not the same department” as it was in 2017, when widespread unconstitutional practices sparked a federal consent decree, the department’s court-appointed monitor said Thursday.

The head of the monitoring team, Kenneth Thompson, struck an optimistic tone at a hearing in federal court that marked the five-year anniversary of the consent decree.

“We can confidently state this morning that this department is making significant progress toward compliance in virtually all areas of the consent decree,” Thompson said.

U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar, who has overseen the implementation of the consent decree, also expressed hope about the department’s outlook, though he noted that significant staffing problems still stand in the way of compliance.

It’s not clear, however, whether the community’s observations about the police department have changed over the life of the consent decree.

Natasha Pratt-Harris, a professor at Morgan State University who led a 2018-19 community survey in connection with the consent decree, said that the early results of her current survey show that community members continue to have the same concerns and questions about policing.

“They’re pretty much saying some of the same things, that they’re not necessarily making an observation of police officers walking the beat or engaging with community,” Pratt-Harris said.

The newer survey is still underway but a final report is expected to be completed later this year.

Pratt-Harris cautioned that it’s natural for the members of groups like the federal monitoring team and the Baltimore Police Department to focus on the positive outcomes of their work.

The community survey, which was a requirement of the consent decree, ensures that the public’s voice is heard during the monitoring process and can help bridge the disconnect between what the community is seeing and what federal monitors are reporting, she said.

“If you’re responsible for moving a department forward in terms of the problems that persist, you are probably going to evaluate in a way that is more from the positive side,” Pratt-Harris said. “That’s why there’s a community survey. … You still need the voice of the people.”

Bredar on Thursday said the consent decree process is going “quite well,” and blamed the media for portraying the police department negatively. He referenced a forthcoming HBO series that tells the story of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.

“This department hit bottom in the aftermath of Freddie Gray and with respect to the Gun Trace Task Force scandal,” Bredar said. “It’s only when an institution actually collides with that hard bottom that it starts the long, arduous process of reform and repair. That doesn’t get you a big TV show on HBO because it’s mundane.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison acknowledged ongoing problems, pointing in particular to this week’s news that a department employee was fired after just days on the job when he was identified as a “person of interest” in a homicide investigation.

“The public will determine when they have restored their faith in the BPD,” Harrison said.