DOJ’s Consent Agreement with Baltimore Aims to End Abusive Policing, But Will it Work?
TRNN delves into the details of the new deal that attempts to address the aggressive tactics that have stoked controversy in the city
CATHERINE PUGH: …And through this agreement we are moving forward together, to work to heal the tension and the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department, and the community that it serves.
TAYA GRAHAM: It was a hastily called press conference at City Hall. Mayor Catherine Pugh, Attorney General, Loretta Lynch and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, announced they had reached an agreement over how to reform the Baltimore City Police Department.
CATHERINE PUGH: And I want to say that the agreement recognizes that the city’s, Baltimore Police Department, has begun some critical reform. However, there is much more to be done.
TAYA GRAHAM: A process that started last year with the release of a damning report that revealed the Baltimore City Police engaged in unconstitutional and racist policing. But the devil was in the details. Among them, a civilian oversight taskforce charged with assessing and recommending changes to the city civilian review process, requirements that suspects are seat-belted when transported, and that cameras are installed in all vans.
It also included additional training and emphasis on de-escalation tactics. But some specific requirements dug deeper into how Baltimore has been policed in the past. For example, the agreement says officers can no longer make so-called quality of life arrests without approval from a supervisor. It would also preclude officers from stopping people just for being in a high-crime area, or using boilerplate language to justify arrest. Looming over the announcement is timing, concerns that a Trump presidency will halt the process. Lynch says the agreement was aimed at addressing the vast gulf between the police and the community.
LORETTA LYNCH: And we are at the beginning of this process, as the mayor noted. And we have no illusions that change is easy, or that it comes about overnight. We all know better.
TAYA GRAHAM: She also promised a monitor would be appointed to ensure the agreement was followed.
LORETTA LYNCH: The three main issues that emerged from our discussions, from our negotiations, from all of our time in Baltimore: First, to assure effective and constitutional policing. Second, to restore the community’s trust in law enforcement. And finally: to advance public and officer safety.
TAYA GRAHAM: The deal was not without critics. Shortly after it was announced, the Baltimore Police Union issued a statement saying they were left out of the process. But the key question is, will this work? An enquiry about effectiveness, we asked shortly after the press conference.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, Jackie, you were part of helping inform the consent decree. You spoke to the Department of Justice, correct? And you brought some of the women who you met. Basically, women who had been raped and sexually assaulted by police officers, as well as women who had been sexually assaulted, and their cases were not properly investigated.
They were discouraged from reporting the rape and they didn’t have their rape kits tested, things like that. So, essentially, women in Baltimore City who are poor, women of color, women transgendered, didn’t have their sexually assault taken seriously by the Baltimore City Police. So, when you heard about the consent decree being signed today, how did that impact you? What did you think of what they said about the consent decree?
JAQUELINE ROBARGE: Well, my hope is that the particular ways, and not in a generic way, the particular ways that women of color, marginalized women, women involved in street prostitution, that sort of thing, that their difficulties in reporting rapes are specifically accommodated. So we need, in the consent decree, some accountability in making an accessible and transparent process for them to report sexual assaults.
I did see, and I’m just now cracking into the 200-page document, that they are going to ask the police to keep demographic data on sexual assault complaints, and how they’re resolved. Because our big concern was, that within the gender bias, there was also an intersecting racial bias that needed to be accounted for. So, moving forward that looks like something that might be a benefit to us.
TAYA GRAHAM: Do you think there’s any way that the Baltimore City Police Department can train away gender bias, or train away racism?
JAQUELINE ROBARGE: You know, I think, to some degree, the verbal sexual harassment, the very gendered strip searches that occur, the human rights violations, we could tap into the inherent goodness of police officers. But my concern is that there are police officers that, right now, are on the force who are engaged in criminal activity of extorting sex. Primarily from sex workers and other vulnerable women, including transgendered women, and it’s unclear what type of accountability measures we will be able to access through the consent decree.
STEPHEN JANIS: Jackie, you know, one of the things that they said at the press conference, that the Baltimore Police are already making reforms. Has the police department, from your perspective, with your clients, and the people that interact with them, have there been any changes you’ve seen from the police department?
JAQUELINE ROBARGE: No.
STEPHEN JANIS: Really?
JAQUELINE ROBARGE: No. I mean, last night I was working with a young transgendered woman who is a victim of violence. She is also transgendered, she called the police and a report was not taken. And so this was an assault, and it could have been a retaliatory assault, and so we’re concerned.
STEPHEN JANIS: One of the questions that came up during the press conference is, whether or not this will last. I mean, the Trump administration comes in, because it seemed like that was sort of hanging over everything. What do you think, with the consent decree, in terms of it actually being enforceable after a change in administration?
DOUG COLBERT: Well, you see, once you’re in federal court, once you have an action filed there, it’s the judge that has the power and the jurisdiction. So, a new president should not be able to upset federal power, judicial power. The biggest issue right now, Steve, who will be the monitor? Who will be selected to carry the ball, to gain the trust of community, to be able to make sure that if any force? Let’s just assume the union attempts to obstruct or delay, it’s going to be the monitor who’s going to have to really let folks know that we’ve got to get some work done here. And if not, I can go back into federal court and ask that you be held in contempt. There are enforcement powers here, and that’s the biggest step today.
The reason that I’m encouraged, is the fact that there has been a filing — we’ll learn who the federal judges, that’s another important selection, by the way — but now, it’s going to give community an opportunity to be heard. So, the judge should conduct hearings of some nature that’s going to allow people to come forward and speak about the issue of trust, for instance.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, how did they pick the monitor? Talk a little bit about — I don’t want to put you on the spot — but the monitor would come from both… does the city have any input on it, or is it completely a federal oversight?
DOUG COLBERT: They’re describing an open process; anyone can apply for the job. But I would say, that a qualification would be that that individual would have to have close ties to the community that experiences the distrust. That has a basis for saying that the police conduct over the years has been engaged in a pattern of practice of unconstitutional behavior.
TAYA GRAHAM: When it comes to the Baltimore City Police Department, there’s a legacy of zero tolerance. And with that legacy of zero tolerance is a group, a cadre of officers who have been involved in these bad practices for over a decade. Wouldn’t it make more sense, actually, to fire those officers and bring in new officers, as opposed to training away decades of racism and gender bias and unconstitutional policing practices?
DOUG COLBERT: So, you have you to believe, that even the person who’s engaged in systemic abuse is now willing to be retrained, and to learn how to conduct themselves as lawful police officers. I suppose it’s a situation of whether we’re optimists or pessimists about this. And any relationship, if you look at a relationship and say, “Well, you keep doing the same thing.” And the person says, “But I want to change.” So, some people will give them the opportunity of making that transition. And in this situation the firing of an officer is not something that could ever be done easily, I mean, officers have due process rights too.
TAYA GRAHAM: The law enforcement officer’s bill of rights in Maryland is one of the strongest in the country, correct?
DOUG COLBERT: Well, it is. But what’s important here is that, up until this point, we have not heard of police resistance to this consent decree, in fact, quite the opposite. The police commissioner has been an enthusiastic and cooperative partner from the very beginning.
STEPHEN JANIS: But you didn’t see the union there today. I mean, the FOP was not–
TAY GRAHAM: They were noticeably absent.
DOUG COLBERT: And I think we still have to wait for FOP to be heard.
STEPHEN JANIS: Where is the most… where is the teeth in this, that you feel? ‘Cause you said you’re somewhat optimistic, where you think you could really bring about real reform of the Police Department?
DOUG COLBERT: Well, optimistic in the sense that this is a historic moment. We don’t often see the federal justice system enter into local, or state allegations of police misconduct. And I expect that under the new administration, we’ll see that even less. So, what we’re looking at instead, is an opportunity for people to be heard. For people to come forward, for there to be momentum shift in favor of change.
TAYA GRAHAM: Taya Graham, Stephen Janis–
STEPHEN JANIS: We’re reporting for The Real News Network. We are outside city hall and we have just covered the press conference with Loretta Lynch, Mayor Catherine Pugh, about the consent decree that will be entered in federal court today with Baltimore City, to reform the Baltimore City Police Department. Thank you for joining us.
WOMAN: Thank you so much.