By Kevin Rector
An attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice said in federal court in Baltimore on Thursday that the department has "grave concerns" about its proposed consent decree with the city and whether it will improve public safety, and needs more time to assess it.
John Gore, deputy assistant attorney general in the agency's Civil Rights Division, said the department "certainly agrees that there is a critical need for police reform" in Baltimore, but that reform is "really the job of local officials."
He said the Justice Department is not sure the existing agreement strengthens law enforcement and public safety, citing recent increases in crime in Baltimore. He said the department has similar concerns about such police reform agreements nationwide.
In response to the comments, acting city solicitor David Ralph said the city stands by the deal, which he said was crafted with deep input from the community, careful consideration of public safety and measures to better train and equip police officers.
"We don't believe delay is necessary," Ralph said. "We would like to move forward."
The two parties spoke at the beginning of a public hearing, before city residents and representatives of local civil rights organizations and community groups began voicing their thoughts on the proposed consent decree.
Many called for the consent decree agreement to move forward, including mothers of individuals who had been shot and killed by police in the city.
Several speakers denounced racist and discriminatory policing affecting black residents in Baltimore. A diverse set of residents asked the court not to let the police department off the hook, and to maintain a role in forcing reforms through the consent decree.
The hearing began at 9:30 a.m. and concluded about 1:15 p.m., after all members of the public present _ 49 in total _ had their chance to speak.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar denied a motion by the Trump Justice Department for a 90-day pause so attorneys could further brief leaders within the new administration on the proposed reform deal.
The motion had cited Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent directive to top deputies within the department to review a range of law enforcement efforts in the country _ including consent decrees _ to see whether they are in line with President Donald Trump's renewed focus on crime reduction.
Bredar denied the request as "untimely," writing that granting such a delay "at the eleventh hour would be to unduly burden and inconvenience the Court, the other parties, and, most importantly, the public."
The consent decree must be approved by the court to become binding.
At the end of the hearing, Bredar asked the city and the Justice Department attorneys if they had anything to add.
"We maintain our request for additional time to conduct the review and assessment of the consent decree," Gore said for Justice Department.
He asked Bredar to "hold off" on signing the agreement for "at least 30 days" so that new leaders within the Justice Department could "analyze it and re-engage with the city if necessary."
Bredar simply responded, "Thank you, Mr. Gore. I understand your viewpoint."
The deal was reached after a sweeping investigation of the Baltimore Police Department by the Obama Justice Department and a scathing report last summer that outlined widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the city _ particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.
At Thursday's hearing, the first speaker, Alecia Dean, began with a statement: "Indeed, justice delayed is justice denied," she said.
The second speaker, Monique Dixon, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, urged Bredar to accept the consent decree and issue it as an order of the court. Dixon said attempts by the Baltimore Police Department to reform itself have been unsuccessful, and have done little to reduce excessive force and racial profiling by officers.
Two mothers spoke of their sons being shot and killed by Baltimore police officers in past years.
"You have no idea how much pain I experience every day," said Marcella Hill, who said her son was shot and killed by an officer in 2012.
Hill said the officer who shot her son should have gone to jail, but never did. She said real reform is needed, not just a "dog and pony show."
Greta Carter-Willis said her 14-year-old son was fatally shot by a Baltimore police officer in her home in 2006. She called the consent decree "a step in the right direction."
"Please do not delay it," she said. "We need reform in this city, especially in the use of force, to (encourage) de-escalation."
Carter-Willis said her son was shot simply "for holding a plastic dust pan" in his hand.
"A plastic dust pan," she repeated, as her body began to shake and her voice tremor. "He took my son's life for a plastic dust pan!"
Outside the courtroom, she slumped on a couch and wailed in the arms of a loved one.
The hearing Thursday provides the second opportunity for members of the public to share thoughts about the proposed deal. The first involved 47 individuals and a dozen organizations who submitted written comments to the parties and the court. Most of the written comments were in favor of the deal, with a few suggestions for tweaks, and a few were opposed to it.
City leaders and civil rights organizers had urged residents to ask the Trump Justice Department to remain committed to the deal, which was negotiated in the waning days of President Barack Obama's presidency.
The city and the police department had invited the Justice Department into Baltimore in 2015 after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody and the subsequent unrest and rioting.
One of the first residents to arrive Thursday morning to sign up to speak was Prudence Johnson, chair of the Baltimore region of United Democratic Women of Maryland. She feels a pause in the consent decree process "would be bad."
"It is very important that our community as well as the police, our fire, all of our local officials have great relationships with the community. Like I always say, I want Officer Friendly to come back," Johnson said. "I remember when police were your friends, they came out on career day and everybody wanted to be a police officer, and the police helped you, and they got along well with the community. When there were problems in the community, the police were there. When we had rec parties, the police came out to contribute. Police knew who the bad guys were, and they knew who the good guys were. But they were great role models in our communities."
(c)2017 The Baltimore Sun