Statement of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore on the U.S. Department of Justice’s Request to Delay the Baltimore Consent Decree Hearing
It is irresponsible for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Trump Administration to call into question the work product of key parties to the Baltimore Consent Decree and to seek to undo a carefully developed agreement that draws on the expertise and experience of the DOJ’s own staff attorneys, the Baltimore Police Department, and community residents. The DOJ’s findings that several practices of the Baltimore Police Department violate the U.S. Constitution require immediate and positive action; hence, the full support of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for the consent decree. We call on the DOJ to abandon its attempts to delay finalization and implementation of the Baltimore consent decree and to honor its obligations to uphold the U.S. Constitution to protect the residents of Baltimore.
On May 6, 2015, then-Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the DOJ to conduct an investigation of the Baltimore Police Department to determine whether officers were engaging in a pattern and practice of abuse and discrimination. The following day, the DOJ agreed to conduct such an investigation. The investigation was embraced by then-Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and by his successor Commissioner Kevin Davis, both of whom recognized the need to reform the Baltimore Police Department.
Over the course of 15 months, the DOJ worked hand-in-hand with the Baltimore Police Department, the City and residents of Baltimore to conduct a comprehensive investigation into whether policing in Baltimore violated constitutional standards. On August 10, 2016, the DOJ concluded, in a 164-page findings letter, “that there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law,” and “[t]his pattern or practice is driven by systemic deficiencies in BPD’s policies, training, supervision, and accountability structures that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of the federal law.”
Even before the findings letter was released, the Baltimore Police Department and the City had entered into negotiations, as both saw the investigation – and any ensuing consent decree – as a tool to bring about better policing, restore community trust, and improve public safety for all Baltimoreans. Thus, on the same day that the findings letter was released, the DOJ, the Baltimore Police Department, and the City released an “Agreement in Principle” whereby they “commit[ed] to negotiate reforms to ensure sustainable, constitutional, and effective policing.” This unprecedented level of cooperation is what led the parties to enter into a consent decree on January 12, 2017, just a little over a month after a change in leadership at City Hall.
It is both appropriate and necessary that the DOJ, as the nation’s top law enforcement agency, review the actions of local law enforcement agencies across the nation and step in when those actions violate the U.S. Constitution, erode community trust in law enforcement institutions and make it difficult for all sides to work together to maintain public safety. To posit that addressing and remedying unconstitutional violations by law enforcement officials somehow jeopardizes public safety is a non sequitur. Indeed, the Baltimore consent decree requires the adoption of best practices in policing to rebuild the public’s trust in the police, which leads to positive public safety partnerships and outcomes.
For these reasons, we call on the DOJ to honor its agreements and move forward with the Baltimore consent decree immediately. Open Society Institute-Baltimore is working closely with the Baltimore Police Department, the City, and Baltimore residents to support nascent reform efforts, and stands ready to do everything we can to ensure that the Baltimore Police Department becomes an agency that fully embraces constitutional policing.