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U.S. Justice Department Opens a 3rd Investigation Into Baltimore Police

The nation's top law enforcement officials are likely to have a watchful presence over Baltimore police for the next few years, as the U.S. Department of Justice examines whether officers commonly use excessive force and violate residents' constitutional rights.

By Mark Puente

The nation's top law enforcement officials are likely to have a watchful presence over Baltimore police for the next few years, as the U.S. Department of Justice examines whether officers commonly use excessive force and violate residents' constitutional rights.

A wide-ranging investigation announced Friday puts federal authorities in charge of three probes into Baltimore police. The new "pattern or practice" investigation will be added to the collaborative review that began last fall to help curb abuses, and a more recent civil rights probe into the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured while in police custody.

Such broad investigations -- like the one announced by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch for Baltimore -- are designed to examine whether police departments have a history of discrimination or of using force beyond standard guidelines, and can lead to years of court monitoring.

In the coming months, federal investigators will team with law enforcement experts to pore over hundreds of documents, analyzing the methods used by Baltimore officers. Justice Department officials will gather information from community members, interview officers and other local authorities, and observe officers' work, but they will not assess individual cases for potential criminal violations, the agency said.

"This investigation will begin immediately," Lynch said. "Our goal is to work with the community, public officials and law enforcement alike to create a stronger, better Baltimore."

Lynch said it became apparent to federal authorities that the collaborative review would not work because it requires engagement from police, elected leaders and the community. The community's "rather frayed trust" with police made the review ineffective, she said.

The community's mistrust of the police didn't develop overnight, and it will take time to mend the relationship, Lynch said. "We have watched as Baltimore has struggled with issues that face cities across our country today," she said.

Her announcement came after local officials and community leaders pressed the agency to launch an inquiry similar to those in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland that examined whether officers engaged in patterns of excessive force. In both cities, unrest erupted after unarmed black people were killed by police.

Gray, 25, died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center on April 19, a week after being arrested by police. Six officers have been charged in connection with his death.

Lynch visited Baltimore last week in the aftermath of violence that shook the city. She met privately with members of Gray's family, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and with Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts as part of a five-hour trip.

William H. "Billy" Murphy, lawyer for the Gray family, said Friday that the family is grateful Lynch launched the investigation.

"They are pleased that this has become a focal point of national attention and has gotten the federal government's attention," he said. He added thathe believed the problems between Baltimore's police and residents could be solved, so that "the days of the blue wall of silence are gone," along with improper searches and seizures and arrests.

The Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police said it welcomed the civil rights investigation of the Police Department and would work with federal officials "to heal the wounds of our city, and to improve the relationships between the community and our department." In a statement posted on Twitter, the FOP also asked that federal officials consider expanding the investigation to include "the practices and policies" of Rawlings-Blake.

The new probe comes seven months after a Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging brutality and other misconduct. The Sun found that dozens of black residents received battered faces and broken bones during questionable arrests. In nearly all of the cases, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the suspects.

The Sun also found that many officers don't complete the paperwork required when using force to detain individuals -- a problem that could complicate Justice Department efforts to examine records.

The Justice Department's collaborative review was announced five days after The Sun published its first of two articles on police abuses.

On Friday, Lynch said the collaborative review will continue as technical assistance to help the department. The findings will not be released now, but will be folded into the civil rights investigation, she added.

The federal agency's civil rights division has launched broad civil rights probes into 20 police departments in the past six years. They examine excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests and unlawful stops, searches or arrests.

"We have seen from our work in jurisdictions across the country that communities that have gone through this process are experiencing improved policing practices and increased trust between the police and the community," Lynch said.

Rawlings-Blake, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young were among those urging Lynch to launch an investigation. A number of congressional lawmakers from Maryland also sent a letter to Lynch this week expressing support for the investigation.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said Friday he supports the federal investigation and hopes it will lead to "trust and respect" between police and residents. "The community needs the police and the police need the community to solve crime," he said after speaking to students at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Rawlings-Blake issued a statement saying she was "pleased the Department of Justice has agreed to my request."

"Our city is making progress in repairing the fractured relationship between police and community, but bolder reforms are needed and we will not shy away from taking on these challenges," Rawlings-Blake said. "The problems we are confronting in Baltimore are not unique to our city. They did not occur overnight and it will take time for Baltimore to heal and move forward."

Young, clergy and other activists had been calling for a civil rights probe since October. But Rawlings-Blake and police union leaders dismissed the requests until Wednesday.

Young called the announcement of the federal probe "a watershed moment" for Baltimore.

"I am reminded of the many men and women, young and old, who have suffered injustice at the hands of a minority of persistently rogue officers over many generations," he said. "The road to reconciliation will not be easy, but the journey is necessary in order to provide our citizens with the first-class department they want and deserve."

Young added that "the many honorable men and women of the Baltimore Police Department should accept today's news as a sign of a rebirth between their relationship with the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. To the minority of law-breaking cops who are still in our midst, today's news is concrete proof that business as usual will no longer be tolerated in the City of Baltimore."

Del. Curt Anderson, chair of the city's State House delegation, said the Justice Department has heard "passionate anger" from city residents in the past month.

The ACLU of Maryland applauded the added scrutiny of Baltimore's police.

Executive Director Susan Goering said the "investigation could ultimately be the impetus for the Baltimore Police Department to follow through on its promises to improve partnership, transparency and communication between the police and the community in order to improve equality, fairness and public safety for all."

(c)2015 The Baltimore Sun

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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