Reforming Baltimore police may need U.S. oversight

Reforming Baltimore police may need U.S. oversight
May 07
00:00 2015
(Above: Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)


BALTIMORE — Months before a young black man died of the broken neck he suffered during what Baltimore’s top prosecutor called an illegal arrest, the city’s mayor and police commissioner said the department needed reform and asked the U.S. Justice Department for help reviewing officer misconduct.

Now that Freddie Gray is buried, six officers are charged in his death and an uneasy calm has returned to the streets, critics are wondering whether city leaders are capable of implementing the change the city needs without the direct, intensive oversight that comes with a full-fledged civil rights investigation resulting in a federal consent decree.

Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has already pushed back against this possibility, saying it would deprive Baltimore’s leaders from having a say in fighting crime in one of the nation’s most violent major cities, with more than 200 homicides a year.

“Nobody wants the Department of Justice to come and take over our city,” she said last week.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was in Baltimore on Tuesday to meet with Gray’s family and faith leaders. Justice Department officials accompanying her included the head of the civil rights division, Vanita Gupta.

Baltimore’s leaders should welcome federal oversight, because it’s doubtful any police department can fix itself from within, said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California-Irvine School of Law. Consent decrees have been mostly effective since Congress responded to the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles by granting the Justice Department the power in 1994 to sue police departments for civil rights violations.

Los Angeles went through it, and proved that it works, said Chemerinsky, who has studied reform efforts there.

The Justice Department has negotiated settlements with 21 other police departments since then; Seattle and New Orleans are currently under consent decrees, and Cleveland’s police department is negotiating one.

The Justice Department already announced a separate federal probe of Gray’s death. And a broad civil rights investigation would not begin unless federal authorities conclude the ongoing voluntary review is insufficient.

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