BALTIMORE ― Attorney General Jeff Sessions has “grave concerns” about the proposed consent decree between Baltimore and the federal government that would reform the city’s troubled police department, a Justice Department official told a federal judge here on Thursday.
John Gore, the Trump administration’s No. 2 official in the Civil Rights Division, told U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar that Sessions was concerned about a recent spike in crime and how proposed reforms could affect crime rates. Sessions’ concerns, Gore said, are “not simply limited to Baltimore, it applies nationwide.”
Bredar, a former federal public defender overseeing the pending agreement, pointed out that the United States government had already signed it following an extensive civil rights investigation into Baltimore’s police force. But Gore said the Trump Justice Department wanted more time to see if there “may be better ways” to bring about reform.
The Justice Department “certainly agrees” there is a “crucial need” for police reform, Gore said, noting that the city of Baltimore had the DOJ’s “continued commitment” to “work cooperatively and productively” on reform. But, he added, policing was “really the job of local officials” and “reasonable minds may differ” on whether the Baltimore agreement was the best way forward. (Gore, who represented Republicans in redistricting cases, also appeared on behalf of the Justice Department in late February when the Trump administration backed away from its previous claim that Texas lawmakers acted with discriminatory intent when they passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation.)
Thursday’s court hearing was unusual. The United States government is the plaintiff in this case and the city of Baltimore is the defendant, but it was lawyers representing the city who were pressing the judge to move forward and approve the proposed agreement.
David Ralph, the interim city solicitor of Baltimore, said the agreement would both protect civil rights and help fight against crime.
“There are those who seem to believe that these two interests are opposed, that they are at odds with one another,” Ralph said.
But, he said, a better trained police force would support public safety and foster “mutual respect” between police and the community. He called the proposed consent decree a “heavily negotiated document” that took all concerns into account. Ralph also said Baltimore would move forward with reform “with or without this consent decree,” but that it was crucial for the federal court to be involved to help rebuild trust in the community. “All the reforms in the world” won’t matter if the public doesn’t believe there are actually changes, he said.
Bredar, the federal judge, had denied the Trump administration’s request to delay Thursday’s public hearing.
“The primary purpose of this hearing is to hear from the public; it would be especially inappropriate to grant this late request for a delay when it would be the public who were most adversely affected by a postponement,” he wrote in an order on Wednesday afternoon.
Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said the delay would have allowed the DOJ to review the current draft of the consent decree to “ensure that the best result is achieved for the people of the city and ensure that the BPD can carry out its mission of fostering trust with community members, safeguarding life and property, and promoting public safety through enforcing the law in a fair and impartial manner.”
The review of the consent decree is being conducted as the result of a March 31 memo from Sessions that ordered a closer look at whether the agreement would meet administration goals such as promoting officer morale and boosting recruitment and training of officers.
But lawyers for the city said in a court filing this week that it “strains credulity to believe that the release on March 31, 2017 of a two-page AG directive which reiterates long standing principles of federal-local law enforcement collaboration necessitates a ninety-day continuance.”
“The City and [Baltimore Police Department] worked diligently over these months of negotiations with lawyers for the United States to ensure the decree would ‘advance the safety and protection of the public, promote officer safety and morale, protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the public, respect local control of law enforcement ... and do not impede recruitment and training of officers,’” lawyers for the city wrote.
Sessions had previously said he hadn’t read the Justice Department’s pattern-or-practice investigations into widespread police misconduct in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Chicago, but said he believed they were “anecdotal” based on summaries he had reviewed. In what seemed like a reference to Sessions’ skepticism of consent decrees, a lawyer representing Baltimore said on Thursday that he wasn’t sure people were actually looking at the text of the consent decree, which include provisions for amendments.
“We think we have a good document that’s ready to go,” Ralph said.
Prior, the DOJ spokesman, declined to comment on whether Sessions had read the Justice Department’s investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, which was released in August 2016. The proposed consent decree between Baltimore and the federal government was reached in the final days of the Obama administration in early January.
Although Sessions has concerns about how Justice Department investigations affect morale among police officers, it’s worth noting that the DOJ’s extensive investigation mentioned the tough work Baltimore cops had to do under difficult conditions.
“We recognize the challenges faced by police officers in Baltimore and other communities around the country. Every day, police officers risk their lives to uphold the law and keep our communities safe,” the report stated. “Providing policing services in many parts of Baltimore is particularly challenging, where officers regularly confront complex social problems rooted in poverty, racial segregation and deficient educational, employment and housing opportunities. Still, most BPD officers work hard to provide vital services to the community.”
Supporters of the consent decree also say it would benefit Baltimore police officers. It is unclear how precisely the process will unfold from here. The court heard from dozens of members of the public on Thursday, many of whom supported the consent decree and some of whom wanted it to be stronger.
“Why is everyone in Baltimore ready to move forward with police reform except Donald Trump’s Department of Justice?” asked David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.