Baltimore Officials, Justice Department Promise Sweeping Overhaul of City Police

Lynh Bui and Peter Hermann, Washington Post, August 10, 2016

Baltimore’s top law enforcement and political leaders on Wednesday vowed a sweeping overhaul of the city Police Department after a searing rebuke of the agency’s practices, which the Justice Department said regularly discriminated against black residents in poor communities.

Officials promised improved community relations, a purge of race-based policing and a modernized department that better trains officers and holds them accountable. But they warned that reforming an agency entrenched in a culture of unconstitutional policing would be a slow process and could cost millions of dollars.

“Police reform won’t happen overnight or by chance,” Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general, said at a news conference officially unveiling the Justice Department’s 163-page report. “It’s going to take time, and it’s going to require a focused and sustained effort.”

The Justice Department explicitly condemned many long-standing discriminatory enforcement practices by Baltimore police that allowed for illegal searches, arrests and stops of African Americans for minor offenses. But the highly critical report is also an indictment of “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing, which seek to quell crime by targeting minor offenses. Once heralded as groundbreaking crime-fighting strategies, they are now the subject of intense scrutiny amid the national debate over racially biased law enforcement.

“The powerful thing about this report is the way in which it validates what many of us have been saying about zero-tolerance policing in Baltimore for a very long time,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who lived in the city for 15 years and now lives in Baltimore County. “There are many of us who recognized that it was making the community less safe.”

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The Justice Department found that zero-tolerance policing in Baltimore focused too much on the raw numbers of arrests and stops, which resulted in disproportionate stops of black residents over petty crimes such as loitering or trespassing.

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Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) said that while the findings of the report are “challenging to hear,” the investigation created a “crucial foundation” that will allow the city to change the department.

“The report and its follow-up will help to heal the relationship between the police and our communities,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Now that the investigation is complete, city officials will work with the Justice Department to implement a series of court-mandated reforms outlined in what is known as a “consent decree.” The mayor said it could cost the city $5 million to $10 million annually to make the suggested changes, which include improved training and new technology and equipment to modernize the police force.

The court-enforced order will be independently monitored.

City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he has already fired officers as a result of the Justice Department’s investigation. Davis also said he would not tolerate policing that is sexist, racist or discriminatory.

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