Baltimore is getting the federally enforced police reform it wanted despite the misgivings of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who reiterated that he has “grave concerns” about the path the city is taking.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar approved the consent decree between the city of Baltimore and the Department of Justice that was drawn up in the final weeks of the Obama administration. That means the Baltimore Police Department will be legally bound to implement reforms recommended by the DOJ, which were the result of a yearlong investigation into Baltimore’s policing practices.
The investigation, launched after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody, identified racial bias “at every stage” of the police department.
Sessions has made it clear in the past that he is no fan of consent decrees, which the DOJ has entered into with several other local police forces. He has called the agreements an “end run around the democratic process” and said he believes police reform would be best handled on a local level. On Monday, he made that clear when he issued a memo declaring a sweeping federal review of consent decrees, which places the future of pending reform in both Baltimore and Chicago in jeopardy.
“While the Department of Justice continues to fully support police reform in Baltimore, I have grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less-safe city,” Sessions said in a Friday statement. “Make no mistake: Baltimore is facing a violent crime crisis.”
Baltimore saw its deadliest year on record in 2015, when the murder rate in Maryland as a whole soared by 42.5 percent from the previous year, due mainly to its largest city, according to the FBI’s most recently available crime data. Experts have said 2016 will prove to be the city’s second-deadliest year on record once data is available.
But Sessions’ characterization of a city consumed by violence doesn’t tell the whole story; in 2014, the city had actually seen its lowest murder rate in 20 years.
Police reform advocates say that fostering healthy relationships between police and the communities they serve will actually help reduce crime and make cops’ jobs safer and more effective.
“Baltimore cannot flourish without effective and lawful policing, and this consent decree represents the first step toward that reality,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement. “The hard work is far from over. Change does not happen overnight. But this agreement provides the necessary framework to eradicate widespread and systemic police misconduct through sustainable reform.”