Contact Evan Serpick
Today the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the findings of its investigation into the “patterns or practice” of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), launched in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray. The report concludes that “there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.” Among the findings are that the BPD makes unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests, uses policies that disproportionately affect African Americans, uses excessive force, and retaliates against people for exercising their 1st Amendment rights.
The DOJ’s findings affirm and uplift the grievances that Baltimore communities have leveled against the BPD for decades. It is important that the federal government has now acknowledged the validity of these grievances, but it’s deeply troubling that these unconstitutional practices continued for years despite efforts from the community to raise the alarm. It should not take a federal investigation to prompt reforms to a system so deeply in need of them. The fact that community concerns have not been taken seriously only underlines the need for greater community engagement and civilian oversight of the BPD.
The DOJ and the city have reached an “agreement in principle” regarding a legally-binding consent decree that will mandate reforms within the BPD. In the agreement, the parties agreed that compliance with the consent decree will be reviewed by an independent monitor. It also offers broad agreement that the consent decree will require community policing strategies to rebuild police-community relationships damaged by BPD practices and mechanisms to monitor compliance with legal and constitutional requirements.
While this initial agreement between the two parties is a good start, it’s crucial that further discussions toward the development of a formal consent decree include strong community input, which has largely been ignored or swept aside in the past. OSI-Baltimore grantees, including Baltimore United for Change, the ACLU of Maryland, and No Boundaries Coalition—whose report, Over-Policed, Yet Underserved: The People’s Findings Regarding Police Misconduct in West Baltimore, is cited multiple times in the findings report—made great efforts to ensure that community voices were consulted during the investigation. These and other community voices must have input into the creation and implementation of the consent decree.
Given the extent of the systemic problems raised in the findings report, we expect that the consent decree will include strong reforms. A strong consent decree will, at minimum, include the following elements:
- Enhanced community policing, including foot patrols and increased community interaction that builds relationships damaged by decades of misconduct
- Independent, civilian oversight of allegations of police misconduct
- Strengthening of the civilian review board, and the creation of a civilian oversight group looking at further systemic changes
- A publicly-funded community monitoring function that complements the federal monitoring function and ensures that the voice of the community remains present and influential for the life of the consent decree.
We hope that these reforms are not weakened in the negotiation process. Rather, we hope that the Mayor and BPD will take full advantage of the negotiations and eventual consent decree to transform the BPD into a model of equitable and effective policing.
The DOJ investigation and the resulting consent decree can be an important part of implementing systemic reforms to the BPD. But consent decrees in other cities have a mixed record of success. These efforts cannot work in a vacuum. They require constant pressure and continual effort for years to come. We have an unparalleled opportunity to reform the deeply entrenched problems in the Baltimore Police Department and increased attention to community concerns going forward. Let’s make the most of it.