Baltimore and US justice department announce police reform agreement

Consent decree calls for more community-oriented policing, with measures including more training on de-escalation and use of force

The US Department of Justice and the city of Baltimore have announced details of a court-enforceable agreement that outlines sweeping reforms to the citys police department. A federal review last year uncovered racially biased policing practices after the death in custody of Freddie Gray, an unarmed African American.

The announcement, made after weeks of hurried negotiations, comes just days before the inauguration of Donald Trump and the expected confirmation of Jeff Sessions as US attorney general. Both men have criticised police reform efforts spurred by the federal government.

The agreement, known as a consent decree, will ensure an independent monitor oversees departmental reforms, including an emphasis on community-oriented policing, more training on de-escalation and proportional use of force by officers, and the introduction of a community oversight taskforce to strengthen civilian engagement with the department. The agreement has yet to be approved by a federal judge.

At a press conference in Baltimore, the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, reminded reporters and community members that she had assumed office on the day of Grays funeral in April 2015 and visited the city on her first trip as the countrys top law enforcement officer, to meet community leaders and local politicians.

In each meeting, what we heard was loud and clear: the people of Baltimore love their city and because of their love, they were disturbed by the deeply rooted mistrust between law enforcement officers and the community they serve. They could not abide the breakdown of that trust. They wanted to make things better, Lynch said.

A scathing federal civil rights investigation published in August 2016 uncovered extensive evidence of racial disparities in policing, including that African Americans accounted for 95% of people stopped more than 10 times by police. The justice department concluded: BPDs systemic constitutional and statutory violations are rooted in structural failures.

As well as racial biases, the report found evidence of routine excessive force, patterns of unconstitutional arrests, and inadequate responses to sexual assault claims, which investigators found could be attributable to underlying gender bias.

The 227-page consent decree will establish stronger policy and training for the handling of sexual assault allegations and strengthen supervision and internal oversight of investigations into such cases.

The city of Baltimore descended into days of violent unrest following the death of Gray, 25, who died from a broken neck after he was placed in the back of a police van following an arrest local prosecutors described as unlawful. Six Baltimore police officers were criminally charged for their involvement in the incident, but none were convicted after some cases fell apart in court.

The consent decree also mandates that all police vans used to transport individuals be equipped with video cameras. No footage of Grays alleged rough ride was captured from inside the vehicle, which was not equipped with a camera.

The city settled a $6.4m wrongful death lawsuit with Grays family in the months after his death and the consent decree is expected to cost millions to implement. The citys spending board approved the agreement without disclosing financial details, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimores newly elected mayor, Catherine Pugh, a former Maryland state senator who appeared on the streets of West Baltimore calling for calm during the unrest, said that agreement marked a wonderful and great day for Baltimore, that weve taken a step forward.

The intent of this agreement is to make sure that we accommodate every single citizen, every single citizen regardless of their age, their residency, whatever their problems may or may not be is considered in this document, because every single citizen in this city deserves fair treatment, Pugh said.

The enforcement of consent decrees has proved a frequent tool of the Obama administration in dealing with police departments accused of routine civil rights violations. The city of Ferguson, Missouri, whose local force was the subject of international attention after the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, committed to a similar agreement last year and the justice department is currently enforcing 15 consent decrees.

But these agreements are unlikely to be the priority of the incoming administration under the guidance of Sessions. During his confirmation hearing earlier in the week, Sessions said he would not rule out the withdrawal or modification of such agreements, which he said tended to undermine respect for our police officers.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/12/baltimore-justice-department-police-reform-agreement