BALTIMORE (AP) — More than a year and a half after the Justice Department launched an investigation into discriminatory policing practices in Baltimore, the city’s police department on Thursday agreed to a set of sweeping, court-enforceable reforms designed to repair the systemic problems that have long plagued the agency.
The Justice Department agreement mandates changes in the most fundamental aspects of daily police work, including stops, searches and arrests. The consent decree marks the culmination of months of negotiations with the federal government and is meant to correct constitutional violations identified in a scathing report released last year.
The filing, in the waning days of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s tenure, is meant as a capstone moment for an administration that has made civil rights enforcement a priority and that has pursued similar agreements with other large American police forces.
“Through this agreement, we are moving forward together to work to heal the tension in the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and the community that it serves,” Lynch said at a news conference.
The agreement is intended to remain in place long after Lynch leaves office, though civil liberties advocates are concerned that U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who’s been nominated to replace her, may not enforce consent decrees with the same vigor.
“It is binding,” Lynch said in moving to address those concerns, “and it will live on past this administration.”
A hearing will allow for public comment on the agreement before it’s approved by a federal judge.
The Justice Department began investigating the Baltimore force following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who was fatally injured while in the custody of officers. Its report last August found that officers were routinely stopping large numbers of people in poor, black neighborhoods for dubious reasons, and unlawfully arresting residents merely for speaking out in ways police deemed disrespectful.
The death shed light on the department’s many deficiencies, including its officers’ unfair and often brutal treatment of African-Americans living in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. But it also illuminated systemic failures that touched on all aspects of local government: lack of jobs, educational opportunities and decent, safe housing have long contributed to conditions for vast inequality in this city.
The consent decree discourages the arrests of citizens for offenses like loitering or littering, requiring a supervisor to sign off on any request to take someone into custody for a minor infraction, and also mandates basic training for making stops and searches.
In addition, it commands officers to use de-escalation techniques, thoroughly investigate sexual assault claims and send specially trained units to distress calls involving people with mental illness.
Police will not be able to stop someone just because the person is in a high-crime area, or just because the person is trying to avoid contact with an officer, according to the document.
The agreement also lays out policies for transporting prisoners, a likely acknowledgment of the death of Gray, who suffered a grievous spinal cord injury in the back of a police van. The consent decree requires officers to ensure that prisoners are protected with seat belts and to check on them periodically.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis promised his officers that they, too, will benefit from the reforms.
“I have no doubt that when we eventually emerge from this consent decree, we will be better crime fighters and have a greater, more respectful and trustful relationship with our community.”
Hassan Murphy, one of the attorneys representing Gray’s mother and stepfather, said they are “gratified to know at least something major would come from their child’s death.”
The Justice Department in the Obama administration has launched about two dozen wide-ranging investigations of police agencies, including Chicago, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri, and is enforcing consent decrees with many of them. The department is expected to announce Friday its findings in the Chicago investigation.
In a speech Thursday, Lynch, who was sworn in as attorney general on the same day that riots over Gray’s death roiled the city, said the country has “at long last begun to hear the voices of those who do not feel protected by the police, who feel singled out because of where they live or what they look like.”
At the same time, she added, “We have at long last begun to understand the unique stresses and dangers that our law enforcement officers face as they work to address violent crime, drug abuse, human trafficking, and so many of the other ills that afflict our communities.”
At his confirmation hearing this week, Sessions expressed ambivalence about the enforcement of consent decrees. He said that while he believed individual officers needed to be held accountable for wrongdoing, he was concerned about maligning an entire police agency for what may be the bad actions of a small number of officers.
DeRay Mckesson, a well-known Black Lives Matter activist, said the Baltimore consent decree could stand as a model.
“Even with a new administration, this can still serve as a bellwether or model for what deep structural change looks like moving forward,” he said.
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