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  May 21, 2015

Can the DOJ Reform the Baltimore Police Department?

TRNN Replay: As news comes that the city of Ferguson reached an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, The Real News had previously examined the results and limitations of recent federal interventions aiming to reform troubled police departments
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Anton Woronczuk is a producer for The Real News Network.


ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN: The announcement of a full-scale civil rights investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department earlier this month brought with it an important question: will it lead to meaningful and enduring reform? Freddie Gray's death led to the indictment of six officers and a swift response from the Department of Justice, which has announced it's beginning an investigation into possible constitutional or civil rights violations by the Baltimore Police Department.

LORETTA LYNCH, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: This investigation will begin immediately, and will focus on allegations that Baltimore Police Department officers use excessive force, including deadly force, conduct unlawful searches, seizures, and arrests, and engage in discriminatory policing.

WORONCZUK: Many are cautiously optimistic that federal intervention will produce real change in a department whose deep-seated problems were thrust upon the national stage. But an analysis by The Real News Network of past federal interventions shows mixed results. One study by Noah Kupferberg, professor at Brooklyn Law School, looked at cities that agreed to federal intervention in the form of legal agreements called consent decrees following an investigation by the DOJ.

In New York City, his research found that the consent decree likely pressured the city to release startling data. Arrests in the city increased 422 percent from 2002 to 2006, over the same time period of the federal intervention. And in New Jersey, after four years of federal monitoring and oversight, racial disparities in stops, searches, and arrests among state troopers increased, an issue which was the initial spur for the DOJ investigation. His conclusion: “The DOJ and the public should abandon the idea that police consent decrees will alter racial disparity, and instead use such decrees as a means of requiring the recording and public release of data, thus forcing openness and transparency in law enforcement.”

The need to reform the data collection practices of police departments is reflected in the experience of David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the Maryland ACLU. In 2013 he requested stop and frisk data of the Baltimore police.

DAVID ROCAH, SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY, ACLU-MARYLAND: What their response to that request showed was that they were expending a significant amount of effort compiling data in a way that was utterly useless. There's been a lot of talk in Baltimore, as in other cities, about data-driven policing. And yet, it's remarkable to which we don't collect the right data about what officers are doing as a way of changing behavior.

WORONCZUK: Another study conducted by Harvard University and funded by the LA Police Foundation claimed successful federal intervention. It cited a 15 percent drop in the use of force by the LAPD from 2004 to 2009, while noting that blacks and Hispanics faced use of force disproportionately. Police were also shown to have engaged in more arrests, and more citizens faced felony charges while overall crime was decreasing throughout the city. Rocha says one should not conclude that DOJ oversight necessarily leads to more intrusive or aggressive policing, but he does believe that current federal and state policy sets limits on the success of police reform.

ROCAH: Now, I think there are questions to be asked about what it is that we're asking police to do, and what things we're making crimes. And I think a lot of the problems with policing today stem in significant part from our so-called war on drugs.

WORONCZUK: Many police reform advocates point to the 2001 consent decree in Cincinnati as an example of successful federal intervention following uprisings in response to the killing of 15 black men over seven years. Its major achievement included an independent civilian police review board as well as new policies for community-based policing, and training for police responding to people with mental illness or drug addiction. The role of third parties such as the American Civil Liberties Union was crucial to its success, says Michael Brickner, senior policy director of the ACLU-Ohio.

MICHAEL BRICKNER, SENIOR POLICY DIRECTOR, ACLU-OHIO: Because again, oftentimes when it's just the city and the Department of Justice there's not necessarily a voice for the people who are affected. And the ACLU, we could play a really unique role in that we were there to represent the community, and I don't think had other interests, like you sometimes see with the city or even the Department of Justice.

WORONCZUK: That's why people such as Dayvon Love from Baltimore-based Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle say they want a seat at the table.

DAYVON LOVE, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: Ultimately like I've always said, it's about independent black institution-building, developing our fortitude to force law enforcement and political establishment to act in the way that is in our best interests.

WORONCZUK: Brickner also cited the willingness of all parties to go ahead with the agreement, including the Cincinnati Police Union and city officials, as key to its success.

BRICKNER: We did not all sit down and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. There were a lot of really tense moments after the collaborative agreement were brought about. Things that did not work as well as we had hoped. But that commitment towards everyone kind of moving towards reform was always there no matter what happened.

WORONCZUK: The Maryland ACLU's experience in Baltimore suggests reform efforts will not be any easier. In 2010 the ACLU settled a lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department over tens of thousands of illegal arrests as a result of controversial zero tolerance policy.

ROCAH: I would say that the police departments' efforts to comply with the settlement left something to be desired. There was in my view an improper withholding of information. There were significant delays in implementing specific parts of the settlement, and there were continuing problems with adhering to some of the terms over the life of the consent decree.

The DOJ by itself can't reform the Baltimore Police Department. The ACLU can't reform the Baltimore Police Department. The Baltimore Police Department has to reform the Baltimore Police Department, and whether or not that will happen I think depends in significant part on the degree to which there is continuing community pressure for reform.

WORONCZUK: With Stephen Janis, this is Anton Woronczuk for The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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